Archives For Harry Smith

 

“A Strong Argument for
Locally-Oriented Communities

A Review of
Harry Smith:
The Avant-Garde in
The American Vernacular.

Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, editors.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Harry Smith:
The Avant-Garde in
The American Vernacular.

Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, editors
.
Paperback: Getty Research Institute, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

Harry Smith - Perchuk / SinghI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about a church community’s role in nurturing the local culture of its place (see, for instance, my review of Walter Brueggemann’s newest book Journey to the Common Good).  Most recently, I have been thinking about the idea of folk music – i.e.,  music that is distinctive to the people of a place – and its relation to the church.  It seems like there is a lot of good work to be done by churches in discerning a style of music that reflects the people of the place, and at the same time allowing the music of the church to be open to this sort of local folk music – which could come in the form of writing new songs or in the way old hymns or songs are sung or accompanied.  My understanding of what folk music is has been shaped to a large extent by the classic collection The Anthology of American Folk Music (AAFM), which was assembled in the early 1950’s by the eccentric artist and ethnographer Harry Smith.  As I was beginning to reflect more intentionally on the idea of folk music as it relates to the church, I happened to see that the Getty Research Institute had released a new biography of Smith, which will undoubtedly become the authoritative reference work on Smith’s life and work.  This book, Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, reflects the broadness of Smith’s work as an artist and scholar: ethnographer, collector, bibliophile, visual artist, filmmaker, etc.  The book is divided into five parts, the first of which contains biographical essays, the subsequent four engage various aspects of Smith’s work (his films: “Heaven and Earth Magic” and “Mahagonny”; theAAFM”; and finally his use of collage).

The first part of the book is helpful for understanding Smith’s development as an artist, and provides a rich context in which the following essays on his work can be understood.  Smith was born in 1923 in Portland, Oregon and raised by his theosophist parents who encouraged him to explore all the sorts of esoteric philosophies, “which led to an early and ongoing fascination with unorthodox spirituality, comparative religion and philosophy” (16).  The picture that is painted here of Smith is one of a man of extraordinary intellect and endless curiosity who was well-connected with key and cultural figures of his time (especially the poet Allen Ginsberg), and yet much of his life was spent in – or on the edge of – destitution.  Several stories recounted here, for instance, depict Smith as a literal embodiment of Erasmus’ famous epithet: “When I get a little money, I buy books and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

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