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Harry Smith

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b. Harry Everett Smith, 29 May 1923, Portland, Oregon, USA, d. 27 November 1991, New York City, New York, USA. Smith had a lifelong interest in the occult and arcane, becoming a Thelemite, and a student of shamanic rituals of the Lummi people and of the Enochian system. In 1986 he became a bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. He was also a painter, but deliberately destroyed his early output. An innovative filmmaker, he worked mainly in abstract animations using as soundtracks contemporary recordings including some by Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. His tradition of updating the soundtracks so that the music was always contemporary continued after his death with works by Philip Glass and others. The films too were often updated. He began one, Heaven And Earth Magic, in 1943, and added to it until 1962. Another, Late Superimpositions (1963-65) has as its inspiration Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, and uses Lotte Lenya recordings on the soundtrack. Smith himself was the subject of documentary films: Paola Igliori’s American Magus (2001), and Rani Singh’s The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music (2006). This last film centres upon Smith’s considerable contribution to popular music; his 1952 Folkways Records release, Anthology Of American Folk Music (reissued as a boxed set of CDs in 1997 on Smithsonian Folkways). Here, Smith rendered an invaluable picture of American folk music in the period 1927-32, beginning with the advent of electric recording and ending when the Great Depression devastated the communities of the folk artists. This compilation immortalized folk musicians whose contributions to the fabric of American popular culture had been forgotten, and in some instances revived careers. Among musicians whose stature was now recognized were Clarence Tom Ashley, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Smith’s compilation also inspired newcomers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and the Weavers. A few months before his death, Smith, who was by then a virtually penniless alcoholic, was awarded a Grammy, the Chairman’s Merit Award, for this anthology. This compilation was not Smith’s only contribution to recording history. He also recorded poet Allen Ginsberg’s New York Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs in 1973 (released in 1981). Returning to the concept of the folk anthology is a four-disc boxed set of CDs and DVDs, Harry Smith Project: Anthology Of American Folk Music Revised, which features contemporary artists revisiting similar songs. On the final disc in the set, Smith’s original enterprise is revisited and follows him through the use of archive film as he built his remarkable collection of music.

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Birth Name:

Harry Everett Smith


29 May 1923 in Portland, OR

Years Active:

'40s, '50s, '60s, '70s