Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
View entire collection guide What's This?
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical Note
  • Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Archival Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Harry Smith papers
    Date (inclusive): 1888-2010, bulk 1987-1990
    Number: 2013.M.4
    Creator/Collector: Smith, Harry Everett, 1923-1991
    Physical Description: 229 Linear Feet (340 boxes, 4 flatfile folders)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    Business Number: (310) 440-7390
    Fax Number: (310) 440-7780
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Metadata Rights:
    Abstract: 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.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record   for this collection. Click here for the access policy .
    Language: Collection material is in English .

    Biographical Note

    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.

    Historical Note

    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.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers with the following exceptions: audio visual material is unavailable until reformatted; Box 340 is sealed.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Harry Smith papers, 1888-2010 (bulk 1987-1990), The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2013.M.4.

    Acquisition Information

    Gift of the Harry Smith Archives. Acquired in 2013.

    Processing History

    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 VIII. Annette Leddy cataloged the collection, incorporating into the Biographical/Historical notes some sentences from Nancy Perloff and Rani Singh.
    Four unopened, unused audio reels were deaccessioned from the collection in 2022.

    Existence and Location of Copies

    Selected digitized audio and video recordings   from Series V., VI., and VII. are available to on-site readers and Getty staff.

    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.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Topics

    Art -- Collectors and collecting -- United States
    Art and music

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Video recordings
    Photographs, Original
    Motion pictures
    Paper airplanes
    Folk art (traditional art)
    Experimental films -- United States -- 20th century


    Naropa Institute
    Ginsberg, Allen, 1926-1997
    Smith, Harry Everett, 1923-1991