Searching for Harry Smith and an Incomplete Past: The Nature of the Historian’s Work

I am happy to report that there is nothing to report!

I’m sitting in Virginia after a mostly uneventful trip south. Did you know there’s a state called Delaware? I almost forgot and then there it was. The Port of Wilmington is actually quite beautiful, and a bit of a forgotten classic. And kudos to the folks at the farmer’s stand at the Delaware Welcome Center for making delicious, fresh blueberries.

I will surely have more stories for the future, but with this free moment, I thought I’d pick up on something I wanted to discuss earlier. I had the great pleasure this week of seeing New York director Kip Fagan’s production of Carlos Murillo’s The Thick Description of Harry Smith (Volume 1) at the Culture Project at 45 Bleeker Street. The play is part of a larger set of staged readings from Page 73.

Harry Smith is unquestionably most famous as a folklorist, who put together the Anthology of American Folk Music. Whereas previous folklorists cut their teeth recording out in the field, Smith was no more than an avid collector and researcher of old 78s. The series of double albums (three in total, with a fourth that was never completed) was not officially released- some of the records were still in print when the albums first came out- until 1997, and yet became the most widely circulated bootleg of all time, one which influenced nearly every folk musician up to the present, most famously Bob Dylan, who recorded some of these songs with the Band for the Basement Tapes. The three sets include bluesmen such as Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, early cuts by the Carter Family, some of the first Cajun tracks ever recorded, and a wide range of gospel tunes from the sacred harp of Alabama to one of my personal favorites, Blind Willie Johnson. The liner notes are particularly extensive, careful to document the history of each song in the collection. In short, Smith’s hobby paved the way for every roots musician at every outdoor festival you’ll see this summer.

Smith had a long, complex, and accomplished life. Outside of the anthology, he was a known avante-garde filmmaker and occasional painter. He was also, though, downright strange, often elusive and known for crashing in people’s living rooms for months at a time. Romantics might call him a bohemian, while the more cynical sort would call him a bum. Judging from this play, both interpretations are probably correct.

This play is hardly traditional, and becomes far more than a biography. It could best be described as Garrison Keiller’s A Prairie Home Companion on acid, as done in Smith’s very messy living room. Credit goes to musical director Lucas Papelias’s clever arrangements of some of the Anthology’s old songs, which provide an at times sensual, at times menacing, at times triumphant mood to very old songs of love, heartbreak, and tragedy. The highlight perhaps being when the museum curator for the future Harry Smith museum- mostly shown to be nervous and stiff- seduces the audience to a tune about a cuckoo bird, which originally was played very quickly on banjo.

The highlights for me: One character sells a Victrola Record Player to one of the musicians at the center of this tale, arguing it is either the Birth Mother, the Death Machine, or the Wicked Messenger.  And in words I can’t quite bring to life here, he describes the central dilemma that folk archivists went through from the ‘30s to the ‘50s. On the one hand, the record player, to their mind, destroyed old folk traditions, forever separating the player of music from the listener when once upon a time they were one; music was something everyone played and sang as a part of life. On the other hand, it is the machine that preserved some small part of that past for all eternity. The songs and the artists live on forever through those old records.

The part that the play never addressed that I wish it had was that the past was never as good as those folklorists often wanted to believe. The past that old folk archivists wanted to preserve included poverty, racism, segregation, and great suffering, which too many people gloss over in the interest of celebrating a past that truly never was. Harry Smith was certainly part of that.

The other part that got me? The curator’s final monologue, that final frustrated monologue, as she wondered how she could take the last remnants of Harry Smith’s life (which included lots of odds and ends, but none of the films and ‘78s that made him famous) and create a coherent story from them for her museum. In that monologue, she captured the great challenge of being an historian, of being a researcher. How do we create a story from whatever is left behind? How do we create history from those odds and ends? That touched me personally.

Again, this is me approaching the story as an historian and student of history. As a theater goer, I found the performances to be impassioned and well-developed, particularly for a staged reading. The curator and the lead musician in the band were played thoughtfully and sympathetically. You recognized with their plight, as they hoped to seize onto an old America and an old past that was slipping through their fingers.

I hope to come back to some of these themes through this trip, as I explore a past for some of the reasons that I think Smith did. This past produced great art, literature, and music, and was a far different reality from our own. It was literally darker; there were fewer homes further apart, little electricity, and no interstate highways. That difference is striking. Yet it was also a time of violence and entirely at odds with our notions of democracy. Reconciling those two is a tricky thing.

A closing note: The play ended with Dylan’s (whose referenced throughout the show) A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, played with a hard rock arrangement, almost as a song of triumph. It was a compelling coda to the show, a celebration of the end of an old world even as the play spent three hours mourning that very thing. (An Irish wake to send us home.) I don’t have their performance of the song, but I do have a version in a similar spirit by Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour. Featuring David Bowie’s guitar player, Mick Ronson, this is a hard driving blues version with Elmore James-inspired slide guitar from one of Dylan’s most fascinating tours.

Also he’s in white face so… yea. That happened.

Check it out and come back again tomorrow for some more road trip playlist talk and some reviews of the  books I’ve read about The Most Southern Place on Earth.

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One thought on “Searching for Harry Smith and an Incomplete Past: The Nature of the Historian’s Work

  1. Carlos Murillo

    Hey –
    Carlos Murillo here, the author of the play you describe above. Thanks for your thoughtful assessment of the piece – glad you got to see it, and that you took away from it a lot I was hoping for the audience to experience…

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