Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith

Farrar. Aug. 2023. 416p. ISBN 9780374282240. $30. BIOG
The Fugs played at Harry Smith’s (1923–91) memorial service; speakers included Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Dave Van Ronk, poets, film scholars, a psychiatrist, and an archivist from the Smithsonian. But who was Harry Smith? Award-winning biographer Szwed’s (Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth) newest book shows that Smith was—sometimes all at the same time—a painter, filmmaker, record collector and recorder, anthropologist, UFO/parapsychology enthusiast, habitual drug user, and, near the end of his life, Neo-Gnostic bishop. Smith also edited the classic six-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, which was drawn from his own collection of recordings. He’s portrayed in this book as someone who lived on the cheap and who often mooched off others to fund his projects. When he died, he left behind 120 boxes of books and records. Going through them is like entering Borges’s Library of Babel: anything may be there but how does one find it? Szwed is the ideal chronicler for a person worth knowing but so hard to pin down.
VERDICT Szwed, as lively a writer as he is scrupulous, has produced an excellent and engaging biography, the story of an elusive but important and utterly fascinating figure.
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