At home with Harry Smith

We’re dropping in on Harry Everett Smith today to wish him a happy 88th birthday. Not that he’ll be expecting us; Smith checked out of New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1991, forwarding address unknown, and like William S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, his face and voice advertised a life which by rights should have ended some time before.

Smith is best known for mapping musical backwaters in the hugely important and influential Anthology of American Folk Music but as we previously saw, his wide-ranging interests sent him rambling through disciplines like a downtown Jean Cocteau. The American Magus with the magpie mind cycled through obsessive-compulsive collecting, occult exploration, writing and painting. But it’s his experimental films which have attracted the most attention since his death, with recent screenings at New York’s MOMA and Paris’s Pompidou.

The conceptual leaps which informed Smith’s career made him a fascinating, frustrating interview. In a 1965 discussion at the Chelsea led by P. Adams Sitney, pre-eminent historian of avant-garde film, Smith details the phenomenally painstaking labour involved in compiling and then editing his film works, often hand-painted direct on to the celluloid. Click through for further parts where Smith expands on Jung and drugs, admits to pawning loaned cameras and discusses the influence of Surrealism on his work.

In contrast to Smith’s apparently wilful rejection of the mainstream, one of the most interesting sections of the interview concerns his plan to bring the underground overground, by putting together an avant-garde film which would play in suburban cinemas, collaborating with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac as well as Burroughs.

In this undated recording, presumably from the late 1980s, Smith tokes, rambles, sings and kvetches (I kept waiting for someone off camera to shout Shut up, little man!)

For more of Smith’s digressions, check out Think of the Self Speaking, a collection of interviews.

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4 comments

  1. Gosh . Is this the very same James who worked with me at Larrikin last century?

    Harry Smith, mad as a cut snake, was also an inspiration to many in the field of music and art. He was esoteric to the point of illogical and that was his message. He was the inspiration for art curator (from Berlin) David Elliott’s Biennale of Sydney – and a good inspiration at that.

    • Warren Fahey, as I live and breathe! Nice that you could drop by. And so we come full circle – I was first exposed to Harry Smith’s prolific madness at Larrikin via the Anthology. I don’t suppose you ever met him, did you?

  2. Pingback: Harry Everett Smith | paintings « Strange Flowers

  3. Pingback: A Harry Smith Seance | Strange Flowers

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