Cosmic Scholar

The Life and Times of Harry Smith

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Pub Date 22 Aug 2023 | Archive Date 30 Sep 2023


Named one of the Best Books of 2023 by the New Yorker and The New York Times' Dwight Garner

“The first comprehensive biography of this hipster magus . . . [John Szwed] allows different sides of Smith’s personality to catch blades of sun. He brings the right mixture of reverence and comic incredulity to his task.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Grammy Award–winning music scholar and celebrated biographer John Szwed presents the first biography of Harry Smith, the brilliant eccentric who transformed twentieth century art and culture.

He was an anthropologist, filmmaker, painter, folklorist, mystic, and walking encyclopedia. He taught Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe about the occult, swapped drugs with Timothy Leary, had a front-row seat to a young Thelonious Monk, lived with (and tortured) Allen Ginsberg, was admired by Susan Sontag, and was one of the first artists funded by Guggenheim Foundation. He was always broke, generally intoxicated, compulsively irascible, and unimpeachably authentic. Harry Smith was, in the words of Robert Frank, “the only person I met in my life that transcended everything.”

In Cosmic Scholar, the Grammy Award-winning music scholar and celebrated biographer John Szwed patches together, for the first time, the life of one of the twentieth century’s most overlooked cultural figures. From his time recording the customs of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest and Florida to his life in Greenwich Village in its heyday, Smith was consumed by an unceasing desire to create a unified theory of culture. He was an insatiable creator and collector, responsible for the influential Anthology of American Folk Music and several pioneering experimental films, but was also an insufferable and destructive eccentric who was unable to survive in regular society, or keep himself healthy or sober.

Exhaustively researched, energetically told, and complete with a trove of images, Cosmic Scholar is a feat of biographical restoration and the long overdue canonization of an American icon.

Includes black-and-white and color images

Named one of the Best Books of 2023 by the New Yorker and The New York Times' Dwight Garner

“The first comprehensive biography of this hipster magus . . . [John Szwed] allows different sides of...

A Note From the Publisher

John Szwed is the author or editor of many books, including biographies of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and Alan Lomax. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and in 2005 was awarded a Grammy for Doctor Jazz, a book included with the album Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. A former Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies for 26 years at Yale University, he was also a Professor of Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University, and served as the Chair of the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Philadelphia with his family.

John Szwed is the author or editor of many books, including biographies of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and Alan Lomax. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the...

Advance Praise

★ "Szwed confronted both a mammoth and chaotic trove of materials and an even larger void of tragically lost artworks and collections as he assiduously and passionately constructed this engrossing, revelatory, often beyond-belief portrait of a reckless, maddening, cosmic, and transformational genius.” Booklist (starred review)

★ "Szwed is the ideal chronicler for a person worth knowing but so hard to pin down . . . As lively a writer as he is scrupulous, [he] has produced an excellent and engaging biography, the story of an elusive but important and utterly fascinating figure." Library Journal (starred review)

★ "In this vividly detailed biography, music scholar Szwed brilliantly captures the life and legacy of the enigmatic filmmaker, folklorist, painter, producer, anthropologist, archivist, Kabbalist, and alchemist Harry Smith . . . Drawing on extensive research to fill in his subject’s emotional states, Szwed sensitively renders [Smith's] extraordinary, bizarre, and ultimately tragic life . . . A masterful ode to a 'strange and singular character' in American arts." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Szwed, piece by obscure piece, masterfully puts [Harry Smith’s] puzzle of a life together . . . A revelatory portrait of a unique pop-culture figure.” Kirkus Reviews

"Harry Smith was a mythic figure in plain sight, a twentieth-century counterpart to Athanasius Kircher or John Dee, and he always seemed more legend than fact, even in his lifetime—even in the same room. John Szwed's dedicated and hard-nosed biography gathers all the evidence, weighs it judiciously, and delivers a nuanced portrait of the mass of contradictions that was Harry." —Lucy Sante, author of Nineteen Reservoirs

“Harry Smith was one of those underground geniuses who truly was a genius, a maddening, willful, unkempt scrounger of immense intellect whose greatest achievement inflected modern culture and who achieved much more besides. Smith’s mercurial life should have defied any biographer, yet John Szwed, amazingly, has pulled it off, with discrimination as well as sympathy.” —Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America

"With quirky brilliance fitting the subject, John Szwed shows how Harry Smith was much more than a bohemian caricature. He was an early master of creative curation and a pre-digital influencer: a profound influence on people who influenced people we recognize as profoundly influential." —David Hajdu, author of Love For Sale: Pop Music in America

"Best-known for his labor-intensive experimental films and indispensable Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith was an impoverished polymath, multiculti practically from birth—because he cherished repressed realities—and too spiky to fit even a slot in the counter-culture. Yet Harry Smith influenced the influencers. Now thanks to John Szwed and his crackerjack research, this visionary is no longer a complete enigma." —Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

"Harry Smith did more than compile the world's most influential mixtape; he was a polymath creator, scholar, anthropologist, film maker and premier-league New York City art scene hustler. John Szwed's an anthropologist, too, but also a mystery writer, drawn to figures like Smith and Sun Ra in part for their spectacular unknowability. This biography again transforms facts into magic-laced storytelling—which is what Smith was all about." —Will Hermes, author of Lou Reed: The King of New York

"A tormented transcontinental seer who lived like a freeloading visitor from another dimension, Harry Smith existed in obscure subcultures but knew every important artist, writer, musician, and filmmaker from the 1930s to the 1980s. John Szwed’s book captures the druggie angel/devil hoarder musicologist/filmmaker at work building a new reality, one we’d inhabit today if we could get to it." —A. S. Hamrah, author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018

★ "Szwed confronted both a mammoth and chaotic trove of materials and an even larger void of tragically lost artworks and collections as he assiduously and passionately constructed this engrossing...

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Featured Reviews

My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux for an advance copy of this biography on a man who spent every second he could learning, sharing, or just living his life, and the people he influenced or inspired an a variety of different ways.

Some people just aren't made for these times. Going without a meal to buy an album that is rare. Recording Native American ceremonies and learning of the are of knots. Reading and hording bits of esoteric knowledge, and sharing it with out payment or credit. Sometimes it is even creating works of art in film and animation, looking ahead in these arts, while drawing from the past. Some of these people spend their lives on the fringe, lost to time and culture, sometimes even lost to themselves. Others find like people, other artists, creators, creatives and learn from and influence them. Sharing what they have learned from hard lessons, observation, even from psychedelics. Harry Smith was kind of both, remembered by those who knew him, forgotten sadly by most of the culture he helped create. The name probably didn't help, nor did his nature, which is a shame for Smith accomplished much in his lifetime. Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith by writer and educator John Szwed tells the life of this Renaissance man whose works influenced so many others.

Harry Everett Smith was born in Portland, Oregon to an unconventional kind of family, which soon located to the Seattle area of Washington. Smith was a sickly child, undersized and underweight, but grew up with plenty of books which opened him up to the world. Smith became interested in the Native American tribes in the area, and began to talk to members, becoming trusted enough to watch some ceremonies, and with a friend make recordings, and lists of generational knowledge. Unfamiliar with the word anthropology, Smith began investigating the field and soon took classes in college, which opened him up to music, especially different kinds of music, from China, Japan, American folk, whatever was different and new. Soon he was collecting and trading vinyl, keeping the best stuff for himself, and amassing quite a collection. Time in California gave him an interest in art, with animation and film work also intriguing him. A Guggenheim Grant brought him to New York, and when the grant ran out he made a deal with Folkway Records to create the Anthology of American Folk Music, one of the most influential musical collections of all times. And he was just getting started.

A fascinating biography about a person who only comes around once in a while, a polymath who was self taught in so many fields, that touched so many to follow that it really is incredible to read. Music, art, animation, film, occult studies, so many famous people. And yet because of his nature, Smith's influence has really never been addressed. I was familiar with the name from other biographies, but never really put together that this Harry Smith was really the same person. The biography is really very well done. I can't imagine the work the Szwed had to do, interviews, tracking down stories that Smith told that sometimes could be real, or a lot of the times sometimes not. Szwed has a very good style, writing about Smith's life in full, but never letting the narrative drag or just become a list of achievements. And of achievements there are many. Each page has something interesting, a fact, or an idea that Smith followed. A wonderfully written book about an extraordinary life.

Recommended for readers of all sorts of genres and interests. Frankly a lot of podcasts could be made off of this book. Occult, lost religions, Native American culture art, anthropology, animation, movies, even a list of Smith's books that he kept are interesting. A book also for people who enjoy biographies on people that are hard to categorize, and for readers who enjoy very well written biographies.

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