Harry Smith is a folk hero. Smith's masterwork, the definitive, meticulously edited Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), was the bible of the ’60s folk movement that spawned Dylan, Baez, Fahey, and others. To discover it is to stumble into a forgotten, marginalized world, a portal to — as Greil Marcus put it in his book about Dylan's Basement Tapes — "a weird but clearly recognizable America."
Compiled from scratchy 78s of the late ’20s and early ’30s and split into three two-LP volumes — Ballads, Social Music, and Songs — the collection seamlessly mixes country with blues, Cajun dances with fiery sermons. Tales of murder, suicide, plagues, and bizarre hallucinations wander alongside familiar characters from American mythology: Casey Jones, Stackalee (a.k.a. Stagger Lee), and US presidents and their assassins. These figures regularly appear in American stories and songs — from the Anthology and elsewhere — becoming recognizable but, like all great folk heroes, constantly evolving and remaining a mystery.
And so it is with Smith. A grand self-mythologizer, Smith told contradictory stories about his life: Born in 1923, in Portland, Ore., to an occult-obsessed teacher and a salmon fishery worker, he claimed his mother was the Russian princess Anastasia and his father, Aleister Crowley, a British writer, painter, and famed Satanist. Smith dabbled in many different art forms. In addition to editing the Anthology, he recorded Native American tribal rituals, the first Fugs album, and many of Allen Ginsberg's recordings. He was also a prolific filmmaker, painter, writer, and all-around eccentric.
Smith's friends — Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, and Robert Frank among them — tell stories about a mad trickster genius on amphetamines with an encyclopedic knowledge of old music and art, fascinated by alchemy and anthropology, constantly begging for money, always experimenting with some new project. As a filmmaker, he worked solely in the abstract. His early films from the ’40s and ’50s (released in 1957 as Early Abstractions) are protopsychedelic: Colorful, hand-painted geometric shapes bounce and morph into one another.
His great cinematic statement, however, is 1962's Heaven and Earth Magic. An hour-long exercise in black-and-white animation, it appropriately comes with a disputed history. Mekas claims the initial print was in color and projected with a special apparatus that Smith designed and then destroyed, tossing it out the window onto the streets of Manhattan.
Whatever the reality, what survives is strange, unique, and frequently wonderful. White cutouts from old catalogs, advertisements, and religious texts float and pirouette through the all-black frame. A loose story emerges of a Victorian lady who loses a watermelon, visits the dentist, and travels to and from heaven. Its mystical and historical imagery is impossible to fully grasp without years of study — or, perhaps, Smith's brain.