New York

Harry Smith Goes To A Wedding

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Lionel and Joanna Ziprin

One of the most mysterious periods of Harry Smith’s life, for people trying to piece his chronology together, is the period of time he was living in New York, after finishing the Anthology (1952)  and before starting Heaven And Earth Magic (1957).

During this period he worked for a greeting card company (but what a greeting card company!) and recorded Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia’s liturgical singing for Folkways Records.  David Katz took this first person account of Harry during this period from Reb Abulafia’s grandson, Lionel Ziprin. You can find the entire article in Jewish Quarterly.

In 1952, Ziprin married Joanna, an artist and animator, a great beauty later reputed to be the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Joanna’. Joanna was – in the conformist Eisenhower America of the 1950s – a beatnik, and she introduced Lionel, a devout Orthodox Jew, to be-bop jazz, downtown bohemia and the avant garde art scene.

On the day following his marriage to Joanna, Harry Smith, an extraordinary polymath and experimental filmmaker, appeared at Ziprin’s door. ‘I had my wedding in my grandfather’s synagogue. We had a seven-flight walk-up on 88th street near the river. A little rooftop. Pigeons. The next morning, the morning after the first night of the wedding, there’s a knock on the door. Who the hell is knocking, nobody knows where we are! I open the door; I thought it was the stupid landlady or something. I jumped ten feet back! There is Harry Smith! He looked older than when he died! He was carrying Indian feathers, because he lived on the reservation, and he’s carrying an Eskimo seal made out of marble and he says [gravels his voice in imitation] “Well, are you Lionel Ziprin?” So Harry comes in, and from then on, for the next ten or twelve years, he’s there every night for dinner.’

Smith’s parents were part of the early Modern Spiritualist movement in the United States. His mother taught on the Lummi Indian Reservation where Harry recorded many Lummi songs and rituals; he went on to develop an important collection of religious objects. An obsessive ethnomusicologist, he culled an Anthology of American Folk Music from a massive personal collection of 78 rpm records. Featuring then obscure artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, it was released by Folkways in 1952 and the bible of the Greenwich Village folk scene, credited with sparking the folk and blues revival of the late fifties and early sixties.

Smith could talk for hours on subjects as arcane as the tarot, the philosopher’s stone, Indian feathers, exotic plants, extinct religions, his collection of 30,000 Ukrainian Easter eggs, Aleister Crowley and various forms of lost or forgotten magic. Obsessive, abrasive, erratic, a bohemian’s bohemian, he frequently borrowed money, which just as often was never repaid.

‘He would go to the library all day long. He was such a fantastic artist; he could copy all the Latin manuscripts like forgeries, the Hebrew and everything, onto parchment. And at night he would bring me all these things. He had one gesture when leaving: he stooped down and kissed my feet. Man, I was ready to take his teeth out! He says, “My master!” My family adopted him. My father, my mother bought all his cameras, paid for all his film courses in New York. Mostly Jewish people supported Harry Smith.’

In 1952 Ziprin and Joanna invited Smith to the annual Lag Ba’Omer party thrown by Ziprin’s grandfather, the Reb Abulafia (Ed. note: full name Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia ), in Manhattan’s Clinton Hall. It was held in honour of the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) of Safed, the Israeli holy city where Lionel’s grandfather was also born. Rashbi is, of course, the author of the Zohar and the most renowned Kabbalist in history. Along with his son Elazar, he hid in a cave for thirteen years, after the Rabbi Akiva, his teacher, and 24,000 of Akiva’s students were tortured and killed by the Romans. ‘So every year, on Lag B’omer, the thirtieth day after the second day of Passover, hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world – mainly Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries – travel there, to dance on the night of his departure. And it was in this cave, that my grandfather went to see, that all his revelations about Kabbala came to him. So since my grandfather was in America, on Lag B’omer night he would rent Clinton Hall, a few hundred people would gather, and my grandfather would sing all these Kabbalistic songs all night long. I remember it since I was a child. I thought that my grandfather was an incarnation of Shimon bar Yochai, but I never said that to him or to anybody.’

Abulafia’s singing, ‘a wonderful goulash of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Arabic flavours’, according to Jewish folklorist Yale Strom, made an immediate impression on Smith. ‘Harry came and was astonished at the whole thing. He recorded all this, my grandfather singing. As we were leaving the party at 3 in the morning, my grandfather wondered: Who is this fellow? He looked very Jewish; he’s very hunchbacked, thick glasses, and dying of starvation, since he only eats yogurt because he thinks everyone’s poisoning him. Harry’s carrying the little tape recorder, so my grandfather asks him in Yiddish, “What is this?” Harry speaks no Yiddish, my grandfather speaks no English. So I said, “This is a tape recorder.” Harry gets the idea. My grandfather hears his voice on this little machine. He can’t believe this! Magic! So Harry says, maybe we can arrange for me to record him, and he spent lots of money on tape and on all these machines.’

“The little tape recorder.” How little was it? Harry’s habit of carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere seems to have been in place well before cassette players were invented in 1962.

2 thoughts on “Harry Smith Goes To A Wedding

  1. Abraham Abulafia lived in the 13th century. The poet Lionel Ziprin lived in the 21st. Therefore, it’s hardly possible that Ziprin could have been Abulafia’s “grandson”, as you mistakenly write he was. It shows disrespect to both of them to make such an egregious error.

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