The Ultimate Bohemian

I lived in New York for about seven months from September 1973 to March 1974.  I was going to school at Fordham University in the Bronx, although my affinity lay with the Village and the Lower East Side. One weekend in September, a friend from my dorm and I were listening to some bands at a free concert somewhere in lower Manhattan, watching the people and drinking quarts of Rheingold beer.  The last band ended its set around 8 PM.  My friend and I sat down to finish drinking our beers when a woman perhaps ten or maybe twenty years our senior sat down and started talking.  I remember she wore a scarf to cover her breasts and a long skirt with batiking on it.  Anyhow, we ended up at her apartment drinking wine and dancing to some kind of bluesy jazz record.  I’m pretty sure it was something by Albert King.  When the album side came to the end no one got up to turn it over.  She mentioned she was in a play at a theater nearby. My friend was studying film and theater and they got to talking.  Our female acquaintance asked him if he had heard of a guy named Harry Smith.  She said he made films that were unique.  Neither of us had. I didn’t think much more about our time hanging out with her or about Harry Smith until my friend told me that the syllabus for his film class mentioned Harry Smith.  In our minds, that made him real. The class hoped to attend a viewing should Smith have one during the semester.  I don’t recall if they did.

In the years after my brief time living in New York, I mostly forgot about Harry Smith.  His name would occasionally appear in a column or comment in the Village Voice, a once great newspaper that is now long gone.  When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in January 1978, I met a guy who sold marijuana and had a tremendous record collection.  Among the more than two thousand albums that lined the walls on makeshift shelves in his basement apartment was one called The Anthology of American Folk Music.  It included six records and, upon further examination, liner notes by Harry Smith.  My friend put one of the records on and began to tell me about Harry Smith.  He began by stating that Smith was a savant, a genius and a strange guy.  Apparently, my friend had known him when he had lived on New York’s Lower East Side a decade or so earlier.  Both men had encyclopedic minds and were eccentric, to say the least.  My friend described Smith as someone who made art films, collected information that seemed random but that he never forgot, and knew people from every walk of life.  Some people found him annoying as hell, my friend continued, but many more seemed to find him more interesting than annoying.

Harry Smith was a filmmaker and a drifter; a sage and a curator.  He was a madman and an artist whose genius appeared in flashes while he lived and becomes more apparent the longer we have to reflect upon it.  Harry Smith was the ultimate bohemian.  This is the understanding one arrives at upon completing the first ever biography of Smith.  Written by John Szwed and titled Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, Szwed provides a detailed and intimately sourced examination of Smith’s life and work.  Captivating in its telling and its topic, Cosmic Scholar takes the reader through a United States many of its residents may never have believed existed, much less thrived.  It is a country that the mainstream rarely investigates and more often attempts to deny.  Poets, painters, writers and musicians; drunks, drug users, gays, beats, hippies and punks.  It’s the world just beyond the ken of middle America—a world that the police and the preachers fear and the politicians ignore.  It’s the world Harry Smith existed in by default and through conscious choice.

The book itself is an unusual and unique journey through the twentieth century.  It begins with a survey of Smith’s early life.  He grew up in Washington State in and near the Puget Sound.  Living in what was still a pretty rural environment and one where indigenous people still had a presence, Smith’s curiosity led him to the songs and languages of local indigenous communities like Salish.  Although he was still a teenager, Smith began to visit these communities and record their songs, dances and rituals.  Using available recording equipment that he occasionally modified he recorded the audio while he used watercolors to paint the dances and ceremonies.  Szwed comments on the fact that Harry was one of the few non-indigenous people to see some of the ceremonies and rituals and among the very few who were allowed to record them.  From the native lands of what we call Washington State to the halls of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, Smith’s ability to insert himself into places others were not often welcome would become a normal part of his research and life.  So would his modification of existing recording equipment—in both filming and audio recording.

Smith’s work among the indigenous people of the Americas would be recognized by anthropologists in universities around the world.  This was in spite of his having very little formal education like most of his fellow researchers.  Indeed, if there is one common element in Smith’s life and across all of his pursuits from anthropology to film making and from music collecting to drug experimentation, it is his determination, will and rejection of conventional expectations.  Academic certifications seem to have meant little.  The same can be true about his relationship to money and status.  Smith knew men and women from all walks of life and seemed to care little as to their gender, skin color, sexuality or wealth.  His personal addictions and inattention to protocols and convention alienated some of his contemporaries, even though he seemed unaware that he had such an affect.

Cosmic Scholar tells a story of a person who would probably be ignored in the modern world, where eccentrics are only respected if they are rich (think Elon Musk or Kanye West).  Humans like Harry Smith, whose eccentricities are well described in this comprehensive biography, would have passed through his life unnoticed, in and out of jails and hospitals.  Fortunately for the world of art and creativity, he lived in a time when wealth was not worshiped above all else and cultures existed that put art and its creators before commercial acceptance and popular notice.  Fortunately for those of us today, John Szwed decided to tell his story as completely as he could.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com