Related Archival Materials
Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Harry Smith papers
Date (inclusive): 1888-2010, bulk 1987-1990
Smith, Harry Everett, 1923-1991
229.0 linear feet
(340 boxes, 4 flatfile folders)
The Getty Research Institute
1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
The archive was assembled after the death of Harry Smith, polymath filmmaker, painter, and collector of American vernacular
art, music, and artifacts. It contains correspondence from the last three years of Smith's life, a selection of Smith's manuscripts
and art, most of his original films, his final audio project,
Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side or Movies for Blind People, and a sizeable portion
of his realia collections, including paper airplanes.
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Language: Collection material is in
Harry Smith, polymath filmmaker, painter, and collector of American vernacular art, music, and artifacts, was born on May
23, 1923 in Portland, Oregon. Smith grew up in Washington state, moving between the small rural towns of Anacortes and Bellingham,
in the center of Pacific Northwest Coast Indian territory. Smith's father, Robert James Smith, worked in the salmon industry
successively as a marine engineer, boat captain, and night watchman. His mother, Mary Louise Hammond, taught on the Lummi
Indian Reservation from 1925 to 1932.
Inspired by his mother's work on the Reservation, Smith became fascinated with local Native American cultures. By age 15,
Smith had recorded songs and rituals of the Lummi, Salish and Swinomish peoples and compiled a dictionary of Puget Sound dialects.
He also began collecting early American folk records. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in documenting the art
and language of diverse cultures on audio, film, and canvas. In 1944, Smith took a brief trip to the San Francisco Bay Area,
attended a Woody Guthrie concert and smoked marijuana for the first time. This proved a life-altering experience for him,
and Smith decided soon after to leave his studies at the University of Washington to move to San Francisco.
In the following two decades, Smith made the unique abstract experimental films that remain landmarks in the history of film.
He also compiled the influential
Anthology of American Folk Music, a compendium of vernacular music that emanated from a range of professional and non-professional, rural and urban musicians
who recorded for local audiences. This collection of heart-wrenching musical narratives from "the old weird America" would
become the foundation of the 1960s revolution in American folk and rock music.
Throughout the 1970s Smith focused on the four-screen film
Mahagonny, an imaginative reworking of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht opera. The film is Smith's portrait of New York City, where
he spent most of his adult life, otherwise recording the city's ambient sounds and collecting its detritus, always applying
the anthropologist's method together with his keen sense of aesthetics to gather items of unexpected beauty and fascination.
An itinerate who flaunted normative social expectations, Smith lived most of his life in cheap New York hotels like The Breslin
or The Chelsea, surrounded by his friends, acolytes, and collections. During the last few years, he moved to Boulder, Colorado,
where he taught at the Naropa Institute at the instigation of his longtime friend and colleague Allen Ginsberg.
The Harry Smith Archives was created in 1992 after Smith's death. Committed to the location, preservation and presentation
of the work of artist Harry Smith, it is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization registered in the State of New York since
1998. On December 2nd, 1991, five days after Harry Smith died at the Chelsea Hotel, a group of Smith's colleagues gathered
in the apartment of Raymond Foye. Attendees included Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, Joe Gross, Bill Breeze, Rani Singh, Deborah
Freeman and others. The focus of the meeting was to discuss an immediate plan to collect and catalog Smith's remaining belongings
and surmise about his continuing legacy.
In the years that followed, the Harry Smith Archives held annual memorials and screenings at Naropa Institute, St. Mark's
Poetry Project, Anthology Film Archives, and other locations, with the goal of increasing awareness of Smith's work. The Archives
also continued researching, locating, identifying and collecting Smith's art objects that had been dispersed to various private
and public collections. The Archives co-produced with Smithsonian Folkways the 1997 reissue of the
Anthology of American Folk Music, with expanded notes and essays and CD-ROM capability, exposing it to an entirely new audience. Originally issued by Folkways
in 1952 as three volumes of two LPs each, (a total of 84 tracks), it had been commercially unavailable for many years. The
Archives also produced a series of concert events between 1999 and 2001. The first concert, precipitated by
Meltdown Festival guest director Nick Cave, was a salute to the influential and idiosyncratic
Anthology and many of Smith's other interests. Similar concerts followed in New York at St Ann's Warehouse. This exploration continued
with a two day symposium at the Getty Research Institute
Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, which featured a concert "No Depression in Heaven" at the GRI along with two five-hour concerts at UCLA's Royce Hall. The
Harry Smith Project box set issued by Shout! Factory Records in 2006 is a multi-media record of those concerts.
The Old Weird America, a documentary by Rani Singh produced by the Harry Smith Archives, traced the history of the
Anthology from its initial compilation of 78 records to its release on Folkways Records in 1952, when it helped to inspire the urban
folk revival of the 1960s. The film also considered the
Anthology's continuing influence on modern music.
Open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions: audio visual material is unavailable until reformatted;
Box 340 is sealed.
Harry Smith papers, 1888-2010 (bulk 1987-1990), The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2013.M.4.
Gift of the Harry Smith Archives. Acquired in 2013.
The collection was processed by Annette Leddy, Jan Bender, and Gary Echternacht in 2013, with Bender soley responsible for
rehousing and processing the objects in Series IX. Annette Leddy cataloged the collection, incorporating into the Biographical/Historical
notes some sentences from Nancy Perloff and Rani Singh.
Existence and Location of Copies note
Related Archival Materials
Other Smith materials are held at the Smithsonian Folkways, the Anthology Film Archives, the Harry Smith Archives, and with
private collectors. Recordings of GRI-sponsored Harry Smith events are also held in Getty Institutional Archives.
Scope and Content of Collection
The collection, assembled by the Harry Smith Archives after Smith's death, comprises most of what remained of Smith's work
after an itinerate life. Correspondence in Series I is focused on the last few years of Smith's life, when he received mail
from former students, acolytes, and medical or social service institutions. Series II contains interesting examples of Smith's
poetry, photocopy collage art, and daily ramblings in his journals, though much of the written material is in the form of
photocopies. Series III contains a large number of photographs of Smith in a range of activities, some by notable American
photographers, and a number by Allen Ginsberg. Series IV contains biographical research, clippings from several decades about
Smith's work, and about the posthumous performances of his work organized by the Harry Smith Archives, which is also the primary
focus of the videos in Series VII.
Series V contains recordings by and about Smith, along with Smith's
Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side or Movies for Blind People, comprised of audio cassette recordings of collected sounds such as faucet drippings, wind, bird calls, and traffic. Series
VI contains most of the extant works in 16 mm film, and amply documents Smith's major film,
Mahagonny, which the Harry Smith Archives transferred to various formats. Smith's collections in Series VIII are the highlight of the
archive, where Smith's unique aesthetic strikingly emerges in the patterns that embrace multiple cultures, commercial and
handmade objects, and paper ephemera of every imaginable kind.
The papers are arranged in eight series:
Series I. Correspondence, 1974-1992, undated;
Series II. Writings, research, and artwork, circa 1920-1991, undated;
Series III. Photographs, slides, and transparencies, 1940-2006, undated;
Series IV. Printed matter, 1943-2008, undated;
Series V. Audio recordings, 1964-2010, undated;
Series VI. Film projects, 1947-2003;
Series VII. Videos, 1964-2007;
Series VIII. Collections, 1888-circa 1990, undated.
Subjects - Topics
Art and music
Art--Collectors and collecting--United States
Genres and Forms of Material
Experimental films--United States--20th century
Folk art (traditional art)
Ginsberg, Allen, 1926-1997