So Harry Smith was this polymath art weirdo. He got semi-famous
making hand-painted abstract films in the 40s, and seemed to a nexus
of all kinds of strange knowledge. In addition to collecting the old
records that became the basis for the folk music anthology, he had
assembled the world's largest collection of string figures (eventually
donated to the smithsonian) and a respectable collection of
hand-painted Ukranian easter eggs. He seems to have had an eye for
abstract pattern, which fits in with a background in Kabbalah ... all
of these abstractions must have seemed to be reflections of something
larger. He assembled all these collections while having no income and
occasionally no fixed abode, most of them were stored in boxes that
moved around with him through various flops and stayovers and
eventually in the Chelsea hotel.
His personality was apparently somewhat rumplestiskinesque -- an
short, intense, gnomish figure, given to strange pronouncements and
occasional bouts of desctructive rage (he apparently destroyed most of
his own experimental film work, one was unrolled down sixth avenue).
In his later years he was given the position of Shaman-in-residence at
the Naropa institute, through his connections with Alan Ginsberg.
Metanostalgia (mar 98)
The Smithsonian Anthology of Folk Music
The original version of this Anthology, released by Harry Smith (later known as "the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel") in 1995, is one of the founding documents of the counterculture. It was a singular force in the folk music reviaval of the early sixties, and its peculiar graphic design also seems to have inspired the look of the underground press (the reissue includes a faithful reprinting of the original package insert, as well as an extended essay by Greil Marcus ("The Older, Weirder America") and a series of testimonials by various boomer luminaries.
The text of these essays reveals a curious phenomenon of metanostalgia, that is, longing for a past which was dominated by an earlier longing for the past. Marcus writes from the post-everything nineties but looks back to the sixties in which a small, not-yet-conscious and not-yet-commercialized band of the alienated stumbled upon the anthology, a collection of material from an earlier, prewar, preindustrial, and pre- the whole postwar American Eisenhower-to-Reagan slick hegemonic package.