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Who is Harry Smith? Portland’s Prodigal Son: A Primer

Who is Harry Smith? Portland’s Prodigal Son: A Primer

images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

In 1991, filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith nibbled on his “just desserts” when he received a Grammy Award for contributions to American Folk Music. Harry, who never walked a blatant path or thought in a straight line, stumbled his way onto the stage to succinctly announce: “I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music.” While Harry Smith knew that music to transform America, he couldn’t calculate his impact on culture—especially on the underground, art, and Portland scenes. More than 30 years later, we’ve just passed Harry’s centennial year, offering us a chance to reflect and celebrate his legacy. 

This weekend, June 15-17, 2024, Portland’s Prodigal Son presents a series of films and events, a reading ranging from musicians playing to his short films to learning about Harry’s PNW influences to the premiere of his magnum opus film Mahagonny. Let’s look at this born-in-Portlander’s impact on the Keep Portland Weird ethos—and give his ghost a hearty welcome home.

King of Misfits: Harry resisted social norms—even the “norms” amongst the Chelsea Hotel alternative crew.  He danced with occult interests, penetrating universalities, synchrony, syncretism, Kabbalah, numerology, and symbolic/glyph extraction. He was a gnostic bishop and yet also operated within chaos magick—his general upheaval possessed the best trickster sense. Ever mischievous, the poet Charles Stein recently reminded fans in a recent talk as part of Whitney Musuem’s exhibit that Harry would study magic and then pronounce it insufficient: “There’s nothing there.”

Certainly, he was a neurodiverse genius: Harry’s knowledge was vast, and he pursued his interests passionately. He had hyperfocus, working tirelessly at times. When asking Neurotribes author Steve Silberman, his response was: “Having met him, I don’t even think it’s a close call.” He had a knack for mathematical attention. Harry collected whatever he might present patterns, from the Puget Sound tidal life as a child to tarot cards to an intense methodology for making Film No 18: Mahagonny. 

Images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives
Images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

Filmed from 1970 to 1972 and edited for the next eight years, the film propagates an ordered structure he invented to labored over. Rani Singh, his friend and director of the Harry Smith Archives, writes that the Mahagonny is “a numerological and symbolic system. Images in the film are divided into the categories of portraits, animation, symbols, and nature to form the palindrome P.A.S.A.N.A.S.A.P.”

Like William Blake, Smith was a visionary. Harry believed in Mahagonny’s power, hoping that it would “introduce a new theoretical basis for films and through the use of worldwide symbols help to bring all people of the Earth closer together.” Harry’s long-form avant-garde film is a testament to his craft and constitution—reigning supreme in experimental film.

The Clinton Street Theater will screen the PNW premiere of the 4K restoration of  Film No. 18: Mahagonngy with Rani Singh will be introducing this idiosyncratic empire of the imagination. $18. Tickets here.

Record Enthusiast: Harry Everett Smith is the head honcho of records. that predicted Discogs— and puts even the headiest vinyl bro to shame. Harry collected thousands of records, or rather rescued them; When shellac became coveted by the US government who needed it for munitions, Harry salvaged the records from those dutifully forking 78s over for the war. Many of these treasures became the Anthology of American Folk Music, which folk hero Dave Van Ronk described as “our bible.” In fact, Harry’s curation of his collection fed the folk revival not once but twice. The Smithsonian Folkways 1997 CD release supported the early aughts Americana renaissance that emboldened alt-country. 

Chuck Pirtle, who also won a Grammy for best Americana liner notes for the Anthology CD release, will be at Turn, Turn, Turn this Sunday to discuss Harry’s collecting and other early interests. $5-$10 suggested donation.

Romantic Poet: Harry was the ultimate poet! Who found poetic substance in all his endeavors and sought a consciousness to pull inspiration from. Even though Harry is cantankerous and disheveled and not Byronic at all, he falls succinctly into romantic tenets: Interests in the folk,  refusal of industrialism in favor of creativity and child-like behavior, the pursuit of the occult, and a search for truths in the face of orthodoxy. Not to mention that there is a direct lineage and poetics from the Romantics to the Surrealist and Beat movements that Harry haunted. 

Come to Sunday’s Stories, Scholars, and String Figures: Harry and the PNW event at Turn to hear poets interpret his poetics. A few of his Naropa disciples will also be in tow with stories to tell. 

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Indigenous Thinker: Harry revered and recorded Indigenous culture; as a teenager on the Lummi reservation, he captured their phonemes and stories—and the people let him. Later, he recorded the Kiowa peyote ceremonies, and whoa, is that ever a story. Harry Smith studied Seminole patchwork and String figures, of which Smith wrote a thousand-page tome. First described in Western anthropological literature by Franz Boas in the late 1800s, Boaz noted these  “forms to represent stories and  shapes were made cross-culturally… as both a game and as something greater.” Additionally, the Cyclical narrative runs rampant in Harry’s oeuvre (not to mention a search for comparative origin stories). His Naropa lectures are fractured and vast, but his delivery and contemplation are generally cyclical and never far from his grasp.

Find out more about these connections at Sunday’s event! (The organizers of Portland’s Prodigal Son would like to acknowledge that these events take place on Indigenous Multnomah, Wasco, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Cowlitz, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes’ lands.)

images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives
Images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

Die-hard Artist: Harry Everett Smith was a genuine article, if not the genuine article. Portland, take heed. Harry worked in painting, photography/film, drawing, recording, and performance arts. He spent his whole life making and creating and collecting and cataloging cosmologies . .  and destroying art. He embodied the artists’ struggle. Luckily, he relied on friendships and his craft to keep him alive, as is true for so many makers and misfits. Aesthetically, Harry emboldened ekphrasis, the art of responding to an art form with another artistic medium. He was a synaesthete, and synaesthesia is a creative’s prime device. He rallied for the surreal and the cosmological collective and was a relentless, interdisciplinary artist. 

Saturday’s Hollywood Theatre event, the Harry Smith 100th Birthday Celebration, will showcase the ekphrasistic primacy of the imagination, as musicians will play in response to Harry’s short films. $15 tickets here.

Portlander Harry Everett Smith was a polymath, a rebel of the best intellect, seeking methods that could dissolve barriers. His pursuits deepen our depths. His efforts give us creative permission. He was a proto-prankster, always playing with creativity and methods of creation at once. Whether you are new to the godfather of Portland, a casual folkie, or a die-hard Harry head, this weekend offers something for everyone.