Harry Smith

Harry Smith

Chelsea Hotel
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Harry Smith is perhaps best known for compiling 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, though he was also a notable underground filmmaker, occultist, and world-class eccentric.


Peter Stampfel Moves Downtown


Folk musician Peter Stampfel moved from the Midwest to New York in late 1959, just a few months before Dylan arrived in the city. They were each under the spell of 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-album set that was compiled by Harry Smith, another downtown dweller. By collecting folk, blues, and country songs from 1927 to 1932, the Anthology provided much of the source material for the folk music revivalists. “For almost the first time,” Van Ronk recalled, “it gave us a sense of what traditional music in the United States was all about, from the source rather than from second-and third-hand interpreters. The Anthology has eighty-two cuts on it, and after a while we knew every word of every song.” Stampfel recalled that there were two main schools of folk at the time: the traditionalists, who valued “authenticity,” and the more polished performers who could be heard on the radio. “Each camp felt that the other was being apostate,” he said. “It was the people who had heard the Harry Smith anthology and the people who hadn’t heard the Harry Smith anthology, that was the dichotomy.” In 1961, Stampfel was living on MacDougal Street and playing more traditional roots music at local coffeehouses. Two years later, in 1963, he founded the Holy Modal Rounders with Steve Weber, then expanded the lineup to include drummer and playwright Sam Shepard during the second half of the 1960s.

From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore

Ed Sanders Dabbles in Underground Film


Ed Sanders fully immersed himself in the underground film scene after seeing Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees at the Charles Theatre and meeting Warhol at a Film-Makers’ Cooperative screening. “Finally the inspiration of Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative made me decide to acquire a 16-mm camera,” he recalled. “I went to my friend Harry Smith for advice.” Smith was known in music circles for his Anthology of American Folk Music, but he was a man of many talents and interests, including experimental filmmaking. Harry suggested buying a “battle camera, like the kind they used filming the war,” which he found at Willoughby’s Camera on West Thirty-Second Street. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage showed Sanders how to use it, and Mekas helped him locate inexpensive film stock. By 1965, Sanders started making Amphetamine Head: A Study of Power in America, about Lower East Side speed demons such as Billy Name and Ondine. “There were plentiful supplies of amphetamine,” Sanders recalled, “sold fairly cheaply in powder form, on the set.” The set, as Sanders’s friend Peter Stampfel explained, was their slang term for the scene: “Like, ‘That guy’s such a dick, he should be bricked off the set,’ ” Stampfel said. “You know, being kicked out of the scene for being an asshole.” Sanders observed that because so many “viewed their lives as taking place on a set, there was no need to hunt afar for actors and actresses. What a cast of characters roamed the Village streets of 1963!”

From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore

The Fugs and the Rounders Form Like Voltron


Soon after Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg formed the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders teamed up with them to create the first incarnation of the Fugs. “Someone told me Sanders and Tuli had written a bunch of songs like ‘Coca-Cola Douche’ and ‘Bull Tongue Clit,’ ” Peter Stampfel recalled. “So I went to listen at the Peace Eye Bookstore, and I saw that the only instrument was Ken Weaver playing a hand drum. So I said, ‘Hey, you can use a backup band.’ It was an obvious thing to put together, so that’s how Steve Weber and I started playing with them.” After signing a deal with Folkways Records, the band recorded their first album in April 1965. Along with several original songs, the Fugs included two Blake poem adaptations on their Harry Smith–produced debut, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction. In addition to live gigs and vinyl records, the group could also be heard on free-form radio shows. Their performance of “Carpe Diem” at a Judson Church memorial service for comedian Lenny Bruce, for example, was recorded by Bob Fass and aired on WBAI (Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and many other musicians, poets, and political activists also made appearances on Fass’s show over the years).

From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore

Patti Smith Explores the Chelsea Hotel


Shirley Clarke had lived at the Chelsea since 1965, and at times her daughter Wendy also had a room in the hotel, where the two often crossed paths with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti prowled the hallways and peeked in other rooms, each of which was its own little universe. On some days she loitered in front of Arthur C. Clarke’s room, hoping she might get a glimpse of the famous author. During another one of her hallway adventures she came across the underground filmmaker, folklorist, and occultist Harry Smith, who wore big Buddy Holly–style glasses that complemented his wild silver hair and tangled beard. On another evening, Patti Smith wandered into the restaurant connected to the lobby of the Chelsea and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.

From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore