Harry Smith, age 15
On May 16, at 3:00 PM at the Hollywood Theatre, Oregon Cartoon Institute convenes a panel of three regional historians to discuss Harry Smith In The Pacific Northwest.
The more accurate title would have been “The Pacific Northwest In Harry Smith”.
Here’s a section of my correspondence with one of the panel members, Rich Wandschneider, the head of The Josephy Library in Joseph, Oregon.
Harry was the son and the grandson of Indian school educators. (His mom taught on the Lummi reservation. His grandmother taught at the Sitka Training School.) Arguably, to me, cross culturality was Harry’s single most defining feature. He began doing field recordings on the Lummi Reservation while still in high school. He attended tribal celebrations, and witnessed ceremonies which included music, dancing and trances/ecstatic states. He was a notoriously unreliable source of information about himself, but we have eye witness testimony to Harry’s field work among the Lummi. Bill Holm, who would become an art historian specializing in Pacific Northwest Coast peoples, was a generational cohort of Harry, and witnessed his activities.
While Harry was collecting phonemes in his Lummi field recordings, he was also collecting rare American 78 records. He took his collection (heavy!) with him to San Francisco, and then on to New York, where he tried to sell it to Moe Asch at Folkways Records. Instead Asch challenged him to curate the Anthology of American Folk Music. Harry famously did not include identification as to the race of the singer on his liner notes. He had been living in a black neighborhood in SF and hanging out with bebop jazz musicians. What was Harry’s engagement with race in America?
In NYC, after curating the Anthology, Harry did a series of basement recordings of liturgical singing by a Lower East Side rabbi. The rabbi did not speak English and Harry did not speak Yiddish. Harry crossed cultures again in Oklahoma, where he met some Kiowa Indians (in jail) and made friendships which resulted in recordings of Kiowa peyote rituals. (Harry used peyote, among many other drugs.) These Kiowa recordings were the ones he was most proud of – the achievement he felt was his most important.
I am going over the ways Harry crossed cultures throughout his life so you can see why I am interested in having you on the May 16 panel as we discuss the Pacific Northwest which produced him. Among other things, we will be talking about cross culturality, which you know something about.
Gus Frederick will be there to talk about Free Thinkers in Oregon (where Harry was born to two Theosophists). You already know that one of Gus’ research interests is T. W. Davenport, who was, briefly, an unusually enlightened Indian agent on the Umatilla Reservation.
Michael Munk will be there to talk about labor, and the Wobblies. Harry’s father was a cannery foreman. His paternal grandfather had been one of the founders of Pacific American Fisheries. Harry’s was a downwardly mobile family – his great grandfather was the lieutenant governor of Illinois. Michael Munk will walk us through PNW labor issues at the time Harry was growing up, poor, marginalized and ambitious.
Hopefully we will be inspiring the next generation of Harry Smith scholars.
Oregon Cartoon Institute’s panel discussion, Harry Smith In The Pacific Northwest, is free. It begins at 3:00 PM, upstairs at the Hollywood Theatre. See you there!