Harry Smith: A Northwest Life, 1923-49

Harry Smith: A Northwest life, 1923-49

“In the beginning there was magic,

and magic was with god and god was magic.”

Paul Radin, Primitive Religions

I. Groundwork: The Alchemist tools

Since Harry Smith’s death in 1991, critics in the U.S. and abroad have celebrated and re-examined his work in ethnomusicology, film, art, music, and the occult. The Whitney Museum’s 1996 Beat Culture and the New America, which toured througout the U.S. featured original paintings and drawings by Smith. Robert Cantwell’s 1996When We Were Good: The Folk Revival and Greil Marcus’ 1997, Invisible Republic: BobDylan’s Basement Tapes, each devote an entire chapter to Smith’s groudbreaking Folkways Anthology. In 1997, Inanout Press released American Magus: A Modern Alchemist. This scrapbook-like collection of candid interviews from friends, colleagues, and admirers examines Smith’s art and life. Over the past two years M. Henry Jones has toured Europe and America screening Smith’s films as “Harry Smith: a re-creation” with DJ Spooky. Smith’s original 1952 3-LP set, Anthology of American Folk Music, reissued in an elaborate 3-CD set by Smithsonian Folkways recordings [#2951-3, 1997], received two Grammy awards for “Best Historical Recording” and “Best Album Notes”.  Most recently, Elbow/Cityful Press publishedThink of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith Selected Interviews, providing additional information about Smith’s life and art in his own words.

The recent attention has helped to bring Harry’s accomplishments as an innovator to the foreground. What remains unknown are the facts of his life; Smith did very little to help in this matter. Over the years Smith worked diligently to perpetuate various myths and stories about his life: illegitimate son of Aleister Crowley, his mother’ secret life as Anastasia, or getting high for the first time with Woody Guthrie in the back of Sun studios in the 40s—take your pick. It has been especially difficult to obtain accurate biographical information about his early years in the Northwest. The missing early archive of photos, albums, native artifacts, musical and ethnological field recordings Smith claimed to have collected as a young adolescent in Anacortes and Bellingham, Washington, is mentioned in a 1983 interiew with Gary Kenton: “Most of it I lost because—I mean my most valuable belongings, you know, my collection of large-size Kwakuitl and Swinomish ceremonial paraphernalia. The large things, like house—entire houseposts and stuff I gave to the museum at the University of Washington, where I was making a desperate attempt to study anthropology. “[1]

After investigating a number of similar references and statements in the process of co-editing the Selected Interviews, I found that Smith did in fact donate a portion of the material he collected in the Puget Sound area to the University of Washington. Two of the artifacts Smith mentions in an early interview are on deposit at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington—a Tlingit canoe bailor and another unidentified artifact.[2] In 1943 and 1944, Smith attended the University and studied with Melville Jacobs. Smith most likely gave Jacobs these artifacts, as well as other ethnological contributions during the mid-40s. In 1945 or 1946 Harry left the Northwest, mentioning in an interview that after an earlier trip to Berkeley to hear a Woody Guthrie concert (and smoking marijuana for the first time), he could not go back to the University or the Northwest. His last trip here in 1949 was for his mother’s funeral in Bellingham. He never saw his father or the Puget Sound area again. Just three years later the Folkways Anthology was released, when Smith was twenty-nine.

II A Northwest Life

I had been going to the University of Washington studying anthropology. I was a teaching assistant there, occasionally. ( I still love Drs. Gunther and Jacobs.) I was never a good student, at all. I led a very isolated youth. My father had run away from home at an early age to become a cowboy. I think that at that time his grandfather was the governor of Illinois. My mother came from Sioux City, Iowa, but my grandmother had a school that was supported by the Czarina of Russia in Sitka, Alaska,[.] My father destroyed every single shred of information on her when she died. I never saw him again. [3]

Harry Everett Smith was born on May 29th, 1923, in Portland, Oregon.  His great-grandfather, John Corson Smith, who served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, helped form the Knights Templar  masons in the U.S.. In an interview with Mary Hill, Smith says, “My great-grandfather re-founded the Templars, who were an impoortant Masonic order. The Smiths come from New York via Galena, Illinoia, but I’m not exactly sure what their background is.”[4] A 1994 book, The Great Pacific American Fisheries: 1899-1965, provides evidence that Harry’s grandfather may have helped to open a cannery for the Deming family, who owned over twenty canneries in Alaska and Washington. The book contains a 1911 picture in King Cove, Alaska, of three men in charge of construction: Emrys Morgan, Mr. Carlson, and Harry Smith.[5] This photo, the only extant information on his grandfather’s name, suggests that Robert and Mary named their son after Robert’s father.  There is a striking resemblance between Harry’s grandfather and photos of the young Harry Smith. In a 1964 interview, Harry discussed his family; “My grandfather came to Washington and founded the Pacific American Fisheries with his brother, which is the largest salmon canning combine in the world.  I once discovered in the attic of our house all those illuminated documents with hands with eyes in them, all kinds of Masonic deals that belonged to my grandfather. My father said I shouldn’t have seen them, and he burned them up immediately.” [6] In the same interview, Harry also comments on his family’s earlier life in Alaska, “My mother described mainly the events from when she was working in the school in Alaska my grandmother had run.” [7]

Although there is little substantive information to support Harry’s grandfather’s involvement with the U.S. branch of the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis). It seems his family were definetly involved in the occult, and had influenced Harry’s interests towards such studies. Carl Kellner, a prosperous Austrian chemist was a student of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and eastern mysticism. He, along with Theodor Reuss began a gnostically inspirred branch, which eventually departed from the Freemason’s. This group had close ties to the Golden Dawn group in Europe, Rudolph Steiner, and later Crowley. According to Harry Smith Archives, there is suggestive evidence which links Harry’s great-grandfather to the Americain order of the OTO.

Smith’s mother was born Mary Louise Hammond on October 16, 1889, in Iowa. His father’s birthdate and place of birth are unknown. By Smith’s own account, his parents were involved in Theosophy and the occult. Harry claimed his father was somewhat of a misfit, and that in Anacortes, Washington the family was considered a little strange. He also claimed they both had their own adjacent house to live in, indicating their lack of interest in a conventional marriage. This claim has been yet another falsity from Harry’s later recollections of his adolescence. Although Smith’s account of being Crowley’s son is untrue, Harry asserted that his mother did know Crowley and that Crowley did visit his mother in the late 1920s in Washington. From an interview with Lionel Ziprin explained that Smith had become obscessed with Crowley and other hermetic traditions after his move to New York in the early 1950s. From Igliori’s notes in her Magus book, she states that Smith met Charles Stansfeld Jones before 1950. Jones was also known as Frater Achad, who was the author of The Great Beast: The Life of Aleister Crowley. We will most likely never know the connection between Crowley, Smith, and his family.

The Multonomah County Polk directory lists a Robert Smith and Mary Smith residing at 508 S. Syracuse St. in Portland, Oregon, between 1925 and 1927. Another listing occurs in a 1925 Polk directory in Bellingham, indicating they must have moved to Bellingham that same year due to his position at the Cannery. The Smith’s lived at 1515 J St., and Robert worked as a marine engineer. The next year they moved to 1104 13th St in south Bellingham. By 1930, Harry’s father had become a captain for Pacific American Fisheries. In 1932 the salmon trapping laws changed, crippling the salmon industry and resulting in local job losses. Robert may have lost his job, because he moved the family to Anacortes to look for new work. It is likely the family had been in Anacortes prior to 1937. From comments Smith made about growing up primarily in Anacortes, Washington. The earliest known listing, in a 1937 Skagit County Polk directory, shows a Robert James Smith and a Mary Louise Smith residing in Anacortes at 1610 6th St. At that time, Harry’s father worked as a night watchman for Apex cannery in Anacortes. Smith’s mother died on October 23rd, 1949, at the age of sixty. Her obituary reads, “She had lived in this city [Bellingham] the past five years and attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.”[8] Smith made no further attempt to talk with his father, who continued to work as a ship captain and fisherman, dying in Anacortes at the age of seventy-eight on March 3, 1959.[9]

Smith would have been about fourteen or fifteen years old when he first began to record Lummi, Salish, Swinomish, and Samish dialects and photograph members of these tribes. His mother worked on the Lummi reservation between 1925 and 1932., and this may have inspired Harry’s interest in local tribes. Sometime after 1945, Smith’s family moved back to Bellingham. The first evidence of their living in Bellingham is a 1948 listing at 413 21st St. By 1945 Smith had already finished his brief stint at the University and apparently worked for Boeing until his departure for Berkeley in 1945 or 1946. The filmmaker Jordan Belson, who was close to Smith remembers first meeting Harry in the Bay Area around 1946.

Begin Chapter II: Heaven and Earth Magic: A Biography of Harry Smith

II. Field Recordings

Some cousins of mine had a book on string figures, and in learning them I realized that, this is happening north of Seattle, Washington—and, children from the reservation of course went to school with me, and I went back, would ride out on the school bus with them to see if they, their parents knew any string figures.  So there was, near where I was visiting, what was called a Spirit Dance. This was held in a long building, about as wide as this tent, but was room down the middle for four fires. All of these things come from the Salish tribes in the northern part of Puget Sound, and the adjoining parts of Vancouver Island where Victoria is.[10]

Smith made the bulk of his first recordings on the Swinomish reservation outside Bellingham. Prior to his entering the University of Wahington in 1943 to study in the recently established anthropology department headed by Melville Jacobs and Erna Gunther (a protégé of Franz Boas), Smith had begun his own studies in linguistics and ethnology of neighboring tribes near Anacortes and Bellingham. Jacobs and Gunther went on to create one of the most elaborately detailed collection of northwest coastal recordings, field notes, and artifacts. Jacobs’ accumulated one of the largest field recordings and notes on Lummi, and Samish dialects. His work in the field of anthropology, linguistics is widely acknowledged as essential to northwest native studies.

As early as 1938 or 1939 Smith not only showed an interest in anthropology and ethnology, but was also an important link in providing Jacobs’s department with field notes and linguistic information in the form of dialectical sound recordings of local north Puget Sound speakers. Smith’s December 2, 1941 letter from Anacortes, just prior to his parents, move to Bellingham, briefs Jacobs on his latest phonetic research. “It might interest you to know that I have collected several hundred Samish and Skagit nouns in the phonetic alphabet that you gave me, and am now starting on verbs.”[11] Earlier in the letter, Smith inquires about the address of H.G. Barnett, whose paper “The Coast Salish of Canada” was published in a January-March 1938 issue of American Anthropologist.

In another letter dated October 30, 1942, Melville Jacobs responded to Vance Packard at The American Magazine in New York City, recommending that Smith’s pervious letter:

This is in reply to your query regarding Harry Smith of Bellingham, Washington. Young Smith has dropped in to interview me at my office on a number of occasions in recent years. He is undoubtedly a lad of most remarkable high seriousness, intelligence, and potentiality. My impression of his anthropological interest is that it amounts to reading and work, which goes beyond the level of a mere youthful hobby. He has a nose for the best scientific literature in the field. He is years ahead of his chronological age, in mental attainment. He did very impressive work, all by himself, in attempting to record the sounds and words of the difficult native language (Salish) spoken near his home.[12]

Smith, who was nineteen at the time of this letter, had already received accolades from academics and local press. Eventually, American Magazine ran a one-page write-up and a full page color photo of Harry in 1943. The article notes: “Gray bearded professors regard this teenage anthropologist with respect. He’s Harry Smith, who at 15 began making expeditions by bicycle from his home in South Bellingham., Wash., to the primitive Indian tribes of Washington and British Columbia. He has taken hundreds of photographs, made phonograph records of tribal music on a portable recording machine, and is compiling a dictionary of several complicated Puget Sound dialects.”[13]

From this early contribution, we see a direct correlation to works that Smith made later in his life. In 1964 Smith traveled with Conrad Rooks’ film crew to Anadarko, Oklahoma, to film Chappaqua, a drug addict’s dark night of the soul, starring William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat characters. Smith was invited by Rooks as an advisor for the film, which Smith quickly abadoned due to his drunkeness on the set. After only a day and a half Smith was arrested for being drunk by local police, and was under suspicion after two guns were stolen from a nearby store in town. In jail he met two people who later introduced him to the singers who he later recorded. What is unique about Smith’ Kiowa Peyote Meeting recordings is Smith’s unique anthropoligical interests. this unique approach in his editing of the Anthology of American Folk Music. “All of the songs in this set of records [Kiowa Peyote Meeting] were sung under conditions that approximate the casual performances outlined above. I had the opportunity of making recordings at an actual ceremony but decided against it; first, because I was anxious to records commentaries on the songs and, second, because I knew that several other persons were jeopordizing their chances of knowledge by making recordings Meetings.”[14] At every turn, Smith formulated obscure approaches in which to pursue his interests. In an interview with John Cohen, Smith declared that the peyote recordings were his largest achievement in anthropology.

Although the letter to Packard at American Magazine confirms Smith’s collection of sound recordings prior to 1942, most of those recordings are lost.  A four-disc acetate recording and a 37 page notebook of annotations for the recordings are all that remains in the University of Washington Archives. [15] Jacobs goes on to tell Packard that Smith actually devided his own portable sound recording device. This device is pictured in the American Magazine photo. Due to their age and overall sound quality, many of the recordings on the four discs are difficult to decipher. They are strictly ethnological recordings, with various informants singing or telling stories. On a torn sheet of paper attached to the front of the field notes given to Jacobs in 1943 or 1944, Smith wrots, “These are the only recordings that I have that are not pure singing—you can play them through and keep what you want. I have stuck in whatever else I had that had any bearing on the transcriptions. Please play these records only with the shadow graphed steel needles and not with coates (sic) or anything else.” The note is undated and the last recording date Smith cites from his field notes is May 8, 1943. The first disc, recorded April 13th, 1941, consists entirely of the Lummi myth of the Creator’s story, which details the creation of the first man and woman and how the earth was made. The second and third discs contain a range of Lummi songs and stories, including canoe songs, Spirit Dance songs, reef net chants, myths of animal conversations between a wren and an ogress, a Beaver’s song to bring rain, and descriptive information about children’s laughing games (with drawings by Smith depicting the instruments used in various games). The second and third discs were made August 14, 1941, and December 12, 1942. The fourth disc contains recordings from the Swinomish reservation in Bellingham, Washington, dated April 9 and 10, 1943, and some earlier Lummi recordings from the December 12, 1942, session.  Smith would have been twenty at the time he made these last recordings.

The hidden treasure in all of this is the elaborately detailed annotations to each recording and field drawings by Smith himself.  Harry spent a great deal of time diagramming Lummi games, explaining how they are played, transcribing various songs, and detailing their stories and meaning. From this early notebook we can begin to see where his meticulous sense of study had begun. From an 1969 interview Smith describes his aesthetic apropos anthropological studies, “My essential interest in music was the patterning that occurred in it—intuition or taste only being a guide to directions where the patterning might occur—it was just as well to collect some other object. One thing is to try to and compress data, whatever it happens to be, into a small area of study of that thing, for the same reason an archaelogist studies pot shards, because you can sit down in trenches and determine stylistic trends. At the end of gathering all this data, whether it’s music or whatever, it has to be correlated with other fields of knowledge.”[16] Smith envisioned all of his contributions as a united front of study interrelated with each other. By examining his first real studies in Northwest tribal language and music, we begin to see these “interrelated” subjects intersect. Possibly the death of his mother, and tenuous relationship with his father prompted Smith to move on into his future away from the Puget Sound. I believe Smith left his findings and studies to Jacobs for further inquiry, either by himself or others, who would eventually trace his early works. Harry did mention his extensive work to myself and others in Boulder, and due to his work on Native American Cosmography, Harry was piecing together work that he had undertaken forty-six years prior while in Boulder, Colorado. These were his last years, and strangely enough, Harry had completed a circuit—a perfect circle back to the beginning of a northwest life.

In 1950 Smith moved from San Francisco to New York, and began his editing of the Anthology for Moe Asch soon after he arrived. He spent the next thirty  years in New York working on his many projects and collections. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Smith continued making films and paintings. He also amassed numerous collections. His four-screen epic film, Mahagonny, took up much of Smith’s time and money  during the 1970s. By the mid-1980s Smith had met up with Allen Ginsberg, staying with him after being struck by a car. Smith would later travel with Ginsberg to Boulder, Colorado, where from 1988 to 1991 Smith lived on the campus of the Naropa Insttute. There he gave his last lectures on Surrealism and Cosmography. He made numerous ambient recordings, and began working on a new cut-out film using hundreds of keys he had xeroxed and collected. His death in NewYork in Novmeber 1991 followed closely after his receiving a lifetiime achievement Grammy for his Anthology .

By delving deeper into Harry Smith’s early life we can begin to see a pattern which he followed in later years. His roots give show us a picture of the young man who made the Anthology, filmed Heaven and Earth Magic , and recorded the Kiowa Peyote Meeting . What had begun as an early obsession, eventually evolved into an extremely hermetic sythesis. From the Cohen interview Harry sums up much of what he set out to do, “I’ve been interested in other things that gave a heightened experience in relation to the environment…I presume that all these are methods to communicate according to the cultural background that they have. So I’m interested in getting a series of objects of different sorts. It is a convienent way of finding information, for whatever use. It does seem apparent, since I started collecting records, that there are definite correlations between different artistic expressions in one particular social situation….And the music is the same thing, short words. It may be connected with language. My recent interest has been much more in linguistics than it has been in music.” Througout Smith’s life he chose to draw correlations, patterns, and in general, the hidden beauty behind the veiled occurances of life itself. For Smith it was one alchemical message diffused througout every aspect of human experience. This is so often reflected in his art, especially his films. Ironically enough, Smith himself has remained hidden to most. On first discovering his many works, it was easy to feel that one had come across some secret society or hermetic answer. I All great art or science carries this same magic, and Harry had tapped into this magic and chose to reflect it back for others to see and experience for themselves. These first recordings, a mere fragment of what Smith collected prior to his leaving the Puget Sound area, represent Smith’s early investigative talent. They are another piece to the mysterious puzzle that made up his cosmography. As Jacobs indicated in his letter to Vance Packard, Smith had an excellent nose for field recordings. We can only ponder the fate of the vast collection of photos, additonal recordings, and artifacts. His drive to learn about other cultures was immense. Music was the common thread which united all of Harry’s numerous interests. But as Harry’s aesthetic would be—no one form of expression took precedence over the others—instead he saw cultures as  all cut from the same cloth. In a 1972 interview he commented, “I consider my truest vocation to be anthropology, I mean, my painting is a mere adjunct to that. This is the thing I’m most interested in, linguistics and archaeology, and so forth. But they are mere amusements. My true vocation is preparation for death, for that day I’ll lie on my bed and see my life go before my eyes.”[17]

Word Count: 2829


[1] Smith, Harry. ed, Steve Creson and Darrin Daniel.Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith Selected Interviews. Elbow/Cityful Press; Seattle, Wa. 1999.  Gary Kenton Interview, pg.18

[2] Email dated 11.5.98 from the  Ethnology Collections manager, Rebecca Andrews. “There are only two accessions attributed to Harry Smith, and neither of them represent any Lummi material. The accessions deal with Tlingit material, which is not Puget Sound. He did gift some photos in 1943, and unfortunately the records of that time just indicate ‘photos’.”

[3] Smith, Harry. Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith Selected Interviews. Elbow/Press 1999. pg. 46

[4]ibid. pg.47

[5] Biery, Galen A. and Van Miert, Rosamonde Ellis. The Great Pacific American Fisheries: 1899-1965.  Unknown photographer. Whatcom County photo archives.

[6] Think of the Self Spreaking: Harry Smith Selected Interviews. Elbow/Cityful Press; pg. 47.

[7]ibid. pg.47

[8] Bellingham Herald, Monday, October 24th, 1949, pg.3.

[9] Watcom County Genealogical Society. Washinton Death Index 1959-60.

[10] Harry Smith Cosmography Lecture,  July 1990 at Naropa Institute’s Summer writing program in Boulder, Colorado. Naropa Institute Library /Harry Smith Archives.

[11] Letter to Melville Jacobs dated December 2nd, 1941. Smith’s address typed at the top of the letter was from Apex Cannery in Anacortes, Washington. Jacobs Collection, University of Washington, Manuscripts and University Archives. Box Folder 6-22, General Correspondence I.

[12] ibid.Letter to Mr. Vance Packard, Editor of Interesting People sections of American Magazine. Crowell-Collier Publishing Co. 250 Park Ave, NY,NY. Melville Jacobs Collection, University. Box folder 13-23, General Correspondence II.

[13] University of Washington Main Library Periodicals. 1943 Folder of American Magazine.

[14]Smith, Harry. Kiowa Peyote Meeting. Folkways Records, 1973. Liner notes, pg.4.

[15] Melville Jacobs Collection, Linguistic and Ethnographic Fieldnotes series, Box Folder 112-13. Sound recordings are housed at the Music Library’s ethnological archive of recordings.

[16]Smith, Harry. Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith Selected Interviews. Elbow/Cityful Press 1999. pg.85

[17] ibid. pg. 169.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s