Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: HARRY SMITH – Perchuk and Singh, eds. [Vol. 3, #11]

“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.”

This book does a fabulous job of fleshing out Smith’s life and work, for those who are unfamiliar with him, or who like myself, simply knew him as the compiler of the AAFM, a work that would inspire a host of  folk music revivalists in the 1960’s, not least of whom was Bob Dylan.  Understanding Smith’s obsessions with collecting and pattern-discovery shed some light on the origins and meaning of the AAFM.  The story of the AAFM as it is described here is that Smith was commissioned by Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records to assemble a compilation of folk music.  Smith, in essence became a deejay, selecting tracks from his massive library of 78’s.  The tracks he selected were from records produced “between 1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the depression halted folk music sales” (30).  His primary selection criteria were songs that were odd or exotic “in relation to what was considered to be the world culture of high class music” (30).

Smith, the authors included in this volume observe, was the quintessential modernist – living and working largely in isolation.  Thus, Greil Marcus is led to characterize the AAFM as Smith “imposing his oddness, his own status as one who didn’t belong and who may not even have wanted to, his own identity as someone unlike anyone else and someone who no one else would want to be, on the country itself” (184).  This imposition, when added on top of the record companies’ original commodification of folk music, was undoubtedly the death blow to folk music as a phenomena of local culture.  Marcus describes it in this way:

In folk music, as it was conventionally understood when Smith did his work, the song sung the singer.  The song embodies tradition; the singer’s body was simply the vehicle that delivered the song.  He or she could not intervene in the song, or in the story or predicament it described.  The performance was not an event; when the song played, there was no history.  But Smith’s work is modernist: the singer sings the song (184).

It comes as little surprise, then, that the oddity embodied in the AAFM was embraced by the counterculture movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The peculiarity once representative of particular places and people became a commodity that could be sold and purchased as a sign of one’s oddness.  Robert Cantwell describes the ultimate conquest of the AAFM:  “[Its] color blindness….is only an aspect of a more comprehensive effacement that yields up an imagined people of no-race, no-time, no-place” (199).  This triad of “no-race, no-time, no-place” has, of course, become familiar to us today as a fundamental and oppressive falsehood of modern global consumerism.

While the history recorded in this fine volume, both of Harry Smith and the transformation of folk music merit further reflection, the basic story as I have briefly overviewed it here reminds us of our need to recover local culture – especially local music, as something more than a stepping stone to national/global distribution—and of the prime situation of churches as communities rooted in a place for beginning to recover and restore local folk (that is, of the people) culture.  The image that is conveyed in this text of Harry Smith embodying the neuroses of modernism, consumerism and individualism, forge a strong argument for locally-oriented communities, a massive, and I believe necessary, shift that can and should be initiated by our church communities.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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