Eccentric Harry Smith occupies an almost mythical role in 20th century American music, as a curator and, in his own fashion, promoter of vital folk forms. The three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music that he compiled for Folkways in the early '50s was instrumental in exposing much roots music to a wider audience and young musicians, helping to facilitate a folk revival and, by extension, folk-rock. When Anthology of American Folk Music was reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997, it was deservedly considered a major event, though critics sometimes seemed to read mystical significance into Smith's intentions that were not there. Whatever his intentions were, there is no question that Smith did a good deal to raise the awareness of American musical heritage, and indeed to pioneer the very concept of collecting records so that sounds and innovations could be preserved for posterity.
Music collecting and compilations of archival releases were just one facet of Smith's life, which was rich with oddity and multi-dimensional achievement by any standard. His interest in both offbeat American culture and an almost anthropological documentation of it was sparked by his boyhood experiences observing Indian life and ceremonies at the Swinomish reservation in Washington state. By the time he was a teenager in the early '40s, he was collecting records and beginning unconventional work in film, drawing on the film itself in the absence of standard film equipment. During World War II, he rabidly collected 78 rpm records from the '20s and '30s. This laid the foundation for a collection from which Anthology of American Folk Music would be drawn, and also helped rescue from obscurity much music that would have been discarded otherwise. This was a time, it should be remembered, when the very concept of record collecting, in the name of preserving cultural riches, was virtually unknown. Not only that, many records were being used as shellac for the American World War II effort, resulting in many rarities vanishing forever as they were converted for wartime use.
Smith continued to build up a massive collection of records and other artifacts throughout the '40s, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually, at the beginning of the '50s, New York. Although by this time he had thousands of discs, record collecting was far from his only pastime; he was also busy painting and working on his unusual animated films. Smith was also, like many artists, often short of cash, which led him to seek out Moe Asch of Folkways Records, in hopes that Asch would buy some of Smith's collection. As a result of that encounter, Smith was given the task of assembling some of the best of the music he collected for the Anthology of American Folk Music volumes, which appeared in 1952.
The three volumes of Anthology of American Folk Music LPs contained music by major blues artists (Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, Cannon's Jug Stompers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt), primeval folk musicians (Clarence Ashley, Uncle Dave Macon), country pioneers (the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family), early Cajun performers (Joseph Falcon, Cleoma Breaux), and spiritual singers. Looked at today, it seems like nothing more than an interesting, across-the-board compilation of American roots music from the time when phonograph records were just starting to have a major cultural impact. Looked at within the context of its own time, however, Anthology of American Folk Music was important. The LP itself was a very young format, and there were very few reissues at all, let alone any of old folk music. Who exactly heard the albums and was exposed to such music for the first time (or one of the first times) through them can never be measured, but performers like Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders), Dave Van Ronk, John Fahey, Eric von Schmidt, and John Cohen (of the New Lost City Ramblers) have testified to its effect upon them. It's been surmised that other musicians like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Jerry Garcia were influenced by the albums to an appreciable degree, not only necessarily by hearing them, but by incorporating songs heard on them into their repertoires, whether they learned them via the anthologies or not. The LPs were likely among the notable sparks of the folk revival of the '50s and early '60s, reintroducing old songs and, more importantly, the notion that such music was worth investigating and preserving on disc and via performance.
The peripatetic Smith, however, did not make a career out of music archiving. He and Asch were planning subsequent Anthology of American Folk Music volumes, but for obscure reasons, this did not come to pass. It's been speculated that one of those reasons was that he had an argument with someone at Folkways who wanted to put a tune on one of those follow-ups celebrating the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt, which Smith did not like. That seems like a small brick upon which to let the building crumble, but whatever the cause, volume four of the series would not appear until 2000, when it was finally assembled by Revenant Records.
Smith returned to working on film and painting throughout the rest of the '50s, one of his projects being an unfinished movie titled The Wizard of Oz. In the mid-'60s, he played a small role in the folk-rock movement by helping convince Moe Asch to record the Fugs' first album; Smith also co-produced the record with the Fugs' Ed Sanders. His varying artistic endeavors over the final decades of his life included filming and recording Native American peyote ceremonies in Oklahoma; researching and constructing string games; and gathering a huge collection of paper planes, eventually donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. In the early '70s, he recorded Allen Ginsberg musical performances, eventually issued on Folkways, and worked on a movie based on the Brecht-Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. He bounced around hotels and apartments in New York, and pursued esoteric recording and collecting interests as his health declined in the '80s and early '90s. In early 1991, he received the lifetime achievement Chairman's Merit Award at the Grammys; he died late that year. His Anthology of American Folk Music volumes got new lives when they were reissued in 1997 (with the missing fourth volume to follow in 2000) and critically acclaimed as some of the most important archival music releases ever.