PRINT January 1998


Harry Smith

WHEN I BEGAN PLAYING the Anthology of American Folk Music, I started bouncing the name of its compiler, Harry Smith, off art-world friends, and also the not completely coidentical group with whom I like to swap opinions about rock ‘n’ roll, and no one had heard of him. But Smith—born 1923, died 1991—was certainly some kind of artist, and rock music would not be what it is without him. Issued in 1952 as a set of eighty-four recordings from the late ’20s and early ’30s, all culled from Smith’s collection, the Anthology was hugely important to the musicians and audiences behind the folk revival of the ’50s and early ’60s—a movement that left a massive legacy in our concept of the possibilities of rock. Eventually, though, as popular taste changed, Smith’s album largely vanished from public view. An archaeological excavation of records released only twenty-odd years before its own creation, it forty years later needed archaeology itself.

Which it has found, in a lovingly packaged CD reissue by Smithsonian Folkways. Turns out, though, that the Anthology is less archaeology than a strong artwork that makes you struggle to grasp it. Treasured for conserving rural history, it was actually produced by a scruffy downtown aesthete/scholar—friend of the Beats, abstract avant-gardist, resident of the Chelsea Hotel, jazz-club habitué, boho alcoholic renegade academic. Smith, clearly, was not a musicologist in any familiar sense. His formative discipline was presumably anthropology, which he studied at college, but he was really a thinker of a breed falling invisible in our ever more professionalized intellectual world: the freelance autodidact, his own one-man school. Smith studied string figures, tarot cards, Seminole patchwork. Whatever interested him he collected—he owned, for example, surely the world’s premier collection of Ukrainian Easter eggs—and he annotated his collections in detail. Meanwhile he did significant filmmaking (painstakingly hand-coloring individual frames), practiced the occult, recorded ambient sound, and produced paintings and drawings. These were as detailed as his notes, and full of extrapictorial meaning: some abstractions, for example, were designed as elaborate charts of jazz songs. (A CD-ROM archive in the reissue includes some of his visual work.)

Think about Smith’s compulsive cataloguing, and you start to hear these records differently. With an emotional range running from the generous serenity of the Carter Family through the piercing melancholia of “Dock” Boggs (haunted, but haunting right back) to the bucolic pastoral of Henry Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” and well beyond, they are an awesome bank of sound, but whatever aural enjoyment Smith got from them, part of his pleasure must have lain simply in collecting and ordering them. (“Some people are nature lovers, some become export bankers,” he once remarked; “I am interested in getting series of objects of different sorts.”) Then you might find yourself wondering how cataloguing operates in the Anthology, which is divided into three double albums, labeled “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs”—but how are these different? And where do they overlap? You also begin to wonder whether there aren’t more unspecified groupings, by similarities or other relations in lyrics, instrumentation, melody, quality of sound—continuities now subtle and now self-evident, together suggesting that categories are being deployed but not explained. You can guess at them, but you can’t be sure about them. Listening to the Anthology involves a not entirely conscious awareness that a subject is being ordered and manipulated—that something is meant.

This feeling of meanings shifting under the music’s surface might tempt an art audience to think of Smith as a kind of curator, orchestrating existing artworks through selection and juxtaposition, but he was more oblique about his intellectual goals than museum folk, let alone academics, can afford to be (asked about the purpose of his many collections, he once said, “I’m leaving it to the future to figure out”). The criteria of his choices are too richly mysterious to count as scholarship of any ordinary kind. The more attractive option is to think of his records as bound into an artist’s imaginative world. Not only was the construction of such worlds out of found objects—here, found tunes—already a modern tradition in the early ’50s, but a pair of quotations that Smith included in his handbook for the Anthology (republished in facsimile in the reissue) foreshadows a generation of artists hardly born when the set was compiled. One is from Judge Learned Hand: “If by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose a new Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ he would be an ‘author,’ and if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats.” The second, sourced as “unknown”: “Really, is it yours? I had supposed it was something old.” In 1952, these sentences were perhaps, at least in part, contributions to an argument over copyright and the Anthology’s reissues. Even so, they resonate pleasantly with a much later art of quotation and appropriation, an art made by artists fascinated with Walter Benjamin and Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Duchamp. To the second quote, for example, I imagine an answer: “Yes, it looks old, but it’s mine—mine because I chose it, and arranged it in a certain order.”

The peculiar flow of this music through time—recorded seventy years ago or so, then vanishing; compiled in the ’50s, having its influence, then fading again; and now back—has some of the same feeling as the categories and themes on the records themselves: simultaneously present and absent, obvious and evanescent. It also shows how cultural history can work—how large effects may arise from unrecognized sources, and how artists use the past. In 1991, Smith finally won a Grammy, and on this rare occasion said something about his dreams for the Anthology, and his belief that they had been realized: “I saw America changed through music.” More typically, though, when asked what its value had been, he replied more modestly: “It’s provided tunes that people made things off of.” Younger artists have appropriated from the past, but have they justified themselves as supplying things to be appropriated for the future? Perhaps Smith is still way ahead of us.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.