Meeting 1: What Hath Harry Wrought?


“I always tried to inspire people, but I don’t know if that atones for my sins.” Harry Smith.

When Harry put together the Anthology many of his sins still lay ahead of him, but the inspirational motives behind his great work are obviously present. Harry had read Plato’s Republic on how changes in music presage changes in society, and told John Cohen, “I thought it would do that. I thought it would develop into something more spectacular than it did, though…I imagine it having some sort of social force for good.”

Harry had several ways of effecting this change by way of the Anthology: his musical choices and the arrangement and sequence he devised for them have been much discussed in this connection. Perhaps less obvious is the booklet Harry put together to accompany the original Anthology LPs. The melange of typefaces, the collage of antique images and symbols, the “headline news” song summaries juxtaposed with scholarly notes: all these make it clear that Harry saw the Anthology as more than just a bunch of old records.

The LP covers add their symbolism to the Anthology’s ambitions. The covers’ colors, red, blue, and green, represented three (fire, air, water) of the original four elements, and each cover featured a mysterious hand tuning the Celestial Monochord, the single string of which was believed by its inventor, Robert Fludd, to connect the pyramid of energy with the pyramid of substance.

The music tells its own story: justice often, but not always, prevails; death’s visit is often, but not always, arbitrary; courtship is a more dangerous undertaking than we would have thought; fishing is about the only thing you can do without the risk of untoward consequences. Is this the blueprint for revolution Plato had in mind?

Among the questions I’d like us to discuss when we meet are these: what was Harry trying to accomplish with the Anthology? What new America did he expect to emerge from the revolution the Anthology’s musical changes would bring? How did the techniques he applied in designing the original package advance these goals? How did his choice and arrangement of musical selections work to accomplish these same aims?

Harry was among other things a filmmaker, and his films continue to be much admired. When he first decided to make films, he didn’t have a camera, and someone suggested he paint directly on the film. He made many of his films this way, using one method or another to transfer an image directly onto the film. The example attached here is titled “Early Abstractions, Pt.4.” Enjoy it, enjoy the music and reading, and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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