Harry Smith was one of the world’s great eccentrics.
The unorthodox lifestyle and non-conformist beliefs of his parents must have already given him a big head-start on becoming such a pioneer of west-coast bohemia. Growing up on the Pacific Northwest like he did, with licence to indulge and pursue his magpie enthusiasms, I imagine he knew right from the beginning that he was different.
While a student with the University of Washington's anthropology department at the tail-end of the war years, around the time the beatnik era had begun its incubation, he made a fledgling journey down the coast to San Francisco and smoked his first joint.
Shortly thereafter, he quit school, moved to the Bay area, and found a place in the local arts community as a painter and film-maker and an obsessive archival collector without borders, collecting all kinds weird and wonderful shit.... including the thousands of 78rpm shellac discs from which he came to distill 1952’s three-volume, six-LP, collection “Anthology of American Folk Music”.
The Smith story is long and fascinating - far too long to go into with much detail right here - that's why I include the collection's booklet of notes and essays and stuff, and also the Harry Smith chapter from a book about the crazy world of collector-archivists by Amanda Petrusich called "Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records". ("A cracking good read on the anthropology of obsession," sez Lazz)
The production of the legendary Anthology took place when the river of serendipity and a Guggenheim grant washed him up in New York at the Chelsea, badly short of cash, and drove him to offer some of his precious collection of 78s for sale to Moses Asch at Folkways records. Asch commissioned him instead to edit and curate an overview of American music from the mid-'20s up to the depression driven collapse of the early record business. Those of you who own the Paramount collections will in consequence discover some duplication.
Smith had planned for six volumes in total, extending the anthology's reach through to the end of the '40s. For one reason or another, he failed. Luckily for us and the rest of the world, the lovely Revenant Records worked with the Harry Smith Archive to recreate a fourth volume, also included here.
(You may find worthwhile diversion here, too: http://www.harveybialy.org/category/harry-smith/)