Harry Everett Smith: Jack of Odd Trades

Born in Portland, Oregon, Harry Everett Smith (1923 – 1991) was an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, and one of the most famous bohemian mystics of his time. Smith is most widely-known for compiling the  Anthology of American Folk Music, published by Folkways Records in 1952– a set of three volumes hugely influential on the folk & blues revival of the ’50s and ’60s, touted as gospel by songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and which still remains a standard-bearer today. He later went on to record the debut album by satirical/political rock band The Fugs in 1965 and an album of music by the poet Allen Ginsberg, New York Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs, captured by Smith at the Hotel Chelsea in 1973 and released eight years later.

Below is a new digital short by animator Drew Christie (created for American Standard Time) interpreting the first meeting between John Cohen (a folk musician, photographer, filmmaker, and 1950s New York renaissance-man in his own right) and the typically eccentric Harry Smith.

As a filmmaker, Harry Smith pioneered extravagant techniques in abstract animation, creating visual effects that were often painted or manipulated by hand directly on the celluloid. His experimental body of work commonly contains themes of mysticism, surrealism, and dada. He also dabbled in fine art, painting large freeform abstractions intended to visually represent notes, measures, beats and riffs of the beatnik era jazz music that inspired him.

Smith was also a devout and life-long occultist, raised by Pantheist Theosophist parents who were influenced by the early modern Spiritualist movement in the United States. Smith made claims to having received shamanic initiation at a young age, when he began collecting religious objects and performing songs and rituals on instruments of his own invention. According to some, he was at one time acclaimed (or possibly self-proclaimed) as “the greatest living magician”

Harry Everett Smith died on November 27, 1991 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, at the age of 68.