The idiosyncratic legacy of Harry Smith


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Although his ‘Anthology of American Folk Music,’ released by Folkways in 1952, became essential to America’s folk music movement of the 1960s, Harry Smith remained on the fringes of culture. Or, rather, on the avant-garde, as Rani Singh and Andrew Perchuk explain in their new collection of essays about the idiosyncratic filmmaker-artist-bohemian, ‘Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular.’

Born in 1923, Smith created his folk music anthology from his own collection of 78s. He was raised in Oregon, where his interest in music began. He moved to San Francisco, where he befriended Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat writers, and he began working in experimental film. Eventually, Smith moved to New York City; he lived -- and died, in 1991 -- at the Chelsea Hotel.


In art circles, Smith got attention for his film work, such as ‘Heaven and Earth Magic,’ made from 1957-1962; the opening sequence is above. All the images were cut from 19th century catalogs.

Tonight, Singh will be at Book Soup at 7 p.m. to talk about the new book on Smith; it includes essays by Greil Marcus, William Moritz, Paul Arthur and Robert Cantwell. Jim Kweskin, of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, will join Singh.

If you can’t get to Book Soup, another event for Smith is coming up on Jan. 28. Patti Smith -- a friend who also lived in the Chelsea -- will be at the Hammer Museum, celebrating the book’s publication.

-- Carolyn Kellogg