Harry Smith Biography


Harry Everett Smith, born on May 29 in 1923, is a film and video artist who has a very unique and complex style included in his work. Harry Smith was born in Portland, Oregon and most of his early childhood was spent in the Pacific Northwest in places such as Oregon and Washington. Smith's childhood set a concrete tone that influenced him in many ways. Robert James Smith and Mary Louise, Harry's parents, raised Smith in a way that allowed him to acquire ideas and experience different cultures. Being exposed to a variety of ideas affected Smith's life, from his young years to the day that he died.

Robert Smith was involved in the fishing industry, as he worked for Pacific American Fisheries, a company that canned salmon. Smith's mother, Mary Louise, was a school teacher on the Lummi Indian Reservation. Smith was very intrigued by the Indian lifestyle on the reservation. By Smith's teenage years, he had begun to record Indian songs and rituals, and also began to compile Puget Sound dialects.

"By the age of fifteen, Harry had spent time recording many Indian songs and rituals, and was compiling a dictionary of several Puget Sound dialects. In addition to developing complicated techniques of transcription, he also amassed an important collection of sacred religious objects, an interest that continued throughout his life." (Sitney)

As one can see, the influence of Mary Louise and the Indian lifestyle helped to transform Smith into a young individual who was very intellectual and precise in his work. While other teenagers were shopping or going to the movies, Smith spent time expanding his knowledge of the arts. In addition to being introduced to Indian culture, other ideas of religion and culture helped to shape Smith as a person. Smith's parents were also Theosophists. This exposed Smith "to a variety of pantheistic ideas which were to persist, through his fascination with unorthodox spirituality, a comparative approach to culture, and a desire to unify philosophies of East and West." (Sitney)

Being so intellectually intrigued by childhood exposures, Smith found himself unable to remain at the University of Washington . He studied anthropology for five semesters, in 1943 and 1944. However, after Smith attended a concert at Berkeley one weekend, and experienced marijuana for the first time, he realized that he could no longer be satisfied with going to college. He needed to see what the world had to offer and needed to spend time with what interested him. Smith relocated to Northern California, where he began to spend time of his films. In the 1950's, Smith found himself living in Bronx, New York. Smith helped to influence the folk music boom of the fifties and sixties, as in 1952, Folkways Records issued him a six disc multi-volume Anthology of Folk Music. In the 1960's, Smith lived at the Chelsea Hotel and began focusing predominantly on films. His friends ranged from anyone such as Janis Joplin or Jimmy Page to a local drug dealer. He was a very open individual who did not correlate between people of different classes or of different interests. During the 1970s, Smith remained in New York and worked on the filming of his epic Mahagonny. This was a four screen project that was projected by colored gels and that had a ten show run in 1981 at Anthology Film Archives. During the 1980's, Smith was constantly on the move, as he would stay with different friends for short periods of time. Smith did not worry about money or other small things in life, as he spent five thousand dollars of living expense money on antiques and lived in an overcrowded room for over nine months, filled with art and other artifacts that were of interest to him.

On November 27, 1991, Harry Smith died at the Chelsea Hotel that he had formerly resided in. During this same year, Smith won the Chairman's Merit Award at the Grammy Awards ceremony. When he received this award, he responded with, "I'm glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music . . . and all that stuff that the rest of you are talking about." Harry Smith is without a doubt an American legend. Not only did Smith provide an outburst of folk music, he also contrived a style of art that is astounding. Living a spontaneous lifestyle full of drugs, Smith strived to achieve what was of interest to him, and wanted to open up his work to all of society.
--Erin Zagaski

Sitney, P.(1979). Visionary Film:The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harry Smith