Allan Ginsberg once described Harry Smith as “famous everywhere underground.” It’s an apt characterization of a man who, until receiving a Grammy nod in 1991 for his curation of the 1952 compilation Anthology of Folk Music, would have only been known to the most ardent followers of outsider art. But despite being relatively unknown throughout his life, his contribution to modern music can hardly be overstated. The aforementioned collection (pulled entirely from his own personal stockpile of 78s) can almost single handedly be credited with jumpstarting the modern folk music movement and was known as “The Bible” in the Greenwich scene. On top of this, he was a surrealist filmmaker and dabbled in abstract expressionist drawing and painting, although never realizing commercial or critical success with either.
There have been a few books written about Harry Smith, including a collection of interviews that Sounding for Harry Smith draws from liberally. But according to author Bret Lunsford, none so far really dives into the coastal towns of Anacortes and Bellingham in which Smith grew up and how they influenced his later life. Well, I’ll give him this: the book definitely takes a deep dive into the histories of these northwest Washington communities. So deep, in fact, that Harry doesn’t really show up as a regular character until page 176 as a high school sophomore. What we actually have here is one of those beautifully printed small town history books sold in gift shops, with Harry Smith as a bit of a Trojan horse used to entice you to read centuries of history that happened before he was even alive. Even Smith’s contemporaries interviewed in the book sometimes admit they don’t remember him or dismiss him as “a nerd.” In exchange for these trenchant insights the reader is rewarded with their entire life stories, for some reason.
There are other, better books about Harry Smith out there if you are interested in his life, but if you happen to be slightly interested in him and also very interested in the sociological and historical aspects of coastal Washington state over the last couple hundred years, then this is definitely one to check out. –Justin Bookworm (Knw Yr Own / P.W. Elverum & Sun)