Harry Smith: Famous Artist, Anacortes Roots

Harry Smith with strings wrapped around his fingers Opens in new windowHarry Everett Smith, an underground influencer of 20th century music, art and film, grew up in Anacortes and Bellingham, then left with little trace. Smith’s impact on American culture continues, and has accelerated since his death in 1991, with numerous books - including “Sounding for Harry Smith: Early Pacific Northwest Influences” by Bret Lunsford - all-star music events, albums and documentaries devoted to his work, an art exhibit at the Whitney Museum in 2023, and a biography by John Szwed, Cosmic Scholar:  The Life and Times of Harry Smith.

Born May 29, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, Harry’s family moved to Bellingham by the time he was two. Anacortes saw only a foreshadowing of the man who became an abstract painter, musicologist, compulsive collector, avant-garde filmmaker, and full-on eccentric.

In 1932, Harry Smith was enrolled at Whitney School in Anacortes. His father was a watchman at the local Apex cannery where Harry filled a room with curiosities from arrowheads and pottery to snakes preserved in jars. Wallie Funk recalls the room contained "everything the sea would cough up."

Harry's Fidalgo gleanings formed just one of many collections. He went on to gather rubber doll heads, tarot cards, Ukrainian Easter eggs, early American folk records, and the world's largest assortment of paper airplanes (later donated to the Smithsonian).

It's probably safe to say the Smith family raised a few eyebrows in Anacortes. Harry's parents lived in separate houses and were Theosophists who encouraged unconventional thinking. Harry himself, according to neighbors, was "strange" and something of a “nerd.”

Harry Smith recording Lummi tribe members in their smokehouse Opens in new windowThe Smiths moved back to Bellingham in 1942. Fascinated by anthropology, young Harry recorded native songs and rituals and worked on a dictionary of Coast Salish dialects. He was featured in American Magazine for his work with local Indians and was shown recording a Lummi spirit dance.

Smith attended the University of Washington, but a trip to Berkeley convinced him that a world flavored with pot and bohemians was a better place for his mental gifts.

He dropped out of school and moved to the Bay Area in 1947, where he began to explore the connections between color, sound and movement. Instead of shooting a film, he would painstakingly paint it (two minutes took two years to complete). Or he'd capture a song on canvas by making each brush stroke represent a note.

Eventually Smith moved to New York and soon fell on hard times. He visited Folkways Records to sell his record collection for some needed cash but was instead offered a contract to compile an anthology of the music.

In 1952, the masterfully annotated, six-record Anthology of American Folk Music was released and became Smith's seminal work. It's a collection friend Allen Ginsberg called a "historic bomb in American folk music." Eighty-four raw roots tracks from 1927-1932 inspired a whole a new generation of musicians.

Smith spent his last years lecturing at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. In 1991, the same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, he died in a New York hotel.

Harry Smith was “famous everywhere underground,” in the words of poet Allen Ginsberg: “He was given a moment to make a speech and said very briefly that he was happy to live long enough to see the American political culture affected and moved and shaped somewhat by American folk music, meaning the whole rock-n-roll, Bob Dylan, Beatnik, post-Beatnik youth culture.”

View related records in the Anacortes Museum Collection:

Historic Photo Archive: Harry Smith