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Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular on April 20-21 Celebrates Artist's Eclectic Work with a Symposium, Live Music, and a Film Screening

Organized by the Getty Research Institute in Collaboration with the Harry Smith Archives

April 4, 2001

Los Angeles--Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular is the first-ever interdisciplinary, multimedia symposium celebrating the work of cultural icon Harry Smith (1923-1991). Through his experimental films, visual artistry, and recordings, Smith became a central, if largely unheralded, figure in the 20th-century American avant-garde. His best-known work, the seminal compilation recording of 1952, Anthology of American Folk Music, helped spur the folk revival of the 1960s.

The free, two-day symposium takes place in the Getty Center's Harold M. Williams Auditorium on Friday, April 20, 2001, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a 7:30 p.m. screening of Smith's films. It continues on Saturday, April 21, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., culminating with an acoustic music concert "No Depression in Heaven: An Exploration of Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music" at 7:30 p.m. with artists such as Robert Lockwood, Jr., Geoff Muldaur, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. (Program schedule is attached.) The symposium is hosted by the Getty Research Institute with the Harry Smith Archives. In the Getty's premiere collaboration with UCLA Performing Arts, the symposium coincides with "Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project," two all-star concerts set for April 25 and 26 at UCLA's Royce Hall.

The Harry Smith symposium will feature spirited discussion and commentary by renowned critics and scholars including Greil Marcus, Anthony Seeger, and Thomas Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute. Crow initiated the symposium as part of the Institute's scholar year theme, "Reproductions and Originals." Throughout both days, listening and video stations will run continuously in the auditorium lobby to allow the public to hear Smith's sound collages and produced recordings, and see his film clips. The symposium also pays tribute to Smith's legendary Folkways Records release, Anthology of American Folk Music. In this six-LP set, Smith created an aural collage constructed from 84 tracks originally recorded between 1927 and 1932 that includes work songs, murder ballads, Cajun tunes, backwoods gospel sermons, hillbilly blues, and Appalachian mountain music.

"This unprecedented Harry Smith symposium offers an unusual opportunity to transcend boundaries artistically and intellectually," says Crow. "The Getty is proud to collaborate with UCLA Performing Arts to provide a stimulating initiation or a fascinating re-immersion into the creative universe of Harry Smith. Our goal is to share these discoveries with a larger public."

Harry Smith was an artist whose activities and interests resonated throughout the American avant-garde. The son of a salmon canning factory watchman in Portland, Oregon, and a mother who taught at the Lummi Indian reservation, Smith began as a teenager to record Native American songs and rituals. Trained as an anthropologist, Smith emerged as a complex artistic figure who made major contributions to the fields of sound recording, independent filmmaking, the visual arts, and ethnographic collecting. Although best known as a filmmaker and musicologist, he frequently described himself as a painter, and his varied projects called on his skills as an anthropologist and linguist.

With his anthology, Smith introduced the world to such legendary musicians as the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Uncle Dave Macon, and Dock Boggs. Widely credited with laying the foundation for the folk music revival of the 50s and 60s, it influenced generations of musicians from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith to Nick Cave, Wilco, and Gillian Welch. Its ongoing influence today stands as a testament to both the music and the anthologist. Reissued in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways, it won two Grammy awards for Best Historical Reissue and Liner Notes.

Rani Singh, Smith's former assistant, director of the Harry Smith Archives, and current Getty visiting scholar, observes that Smith's fascination with patterns infused all of his works. She describes him as a "proto-psychedelic . . . who saw the world through a grand schema of alchemical connections. It was this all-inclusive aesthetic--the desire to show how everything connects--that he felt best revealed the elemental structure of human existence."

With Smith's spirit in mind, the symposium will foster discussion among speakers including Crow, Marcus, Seeger, and Singh, as well as Robert Cantwell, author of several key works on American roots music; Stephen Fredman, a leading authority of 20th-century American poetry at the University of Notre Dame; Annette Michelson, often considered the dean of American cinema studies and a founding editor of October, New York University; William Mortiz, author of numerous works on avant-garde film, professor of film and video, California Institute of the Arts; Jonas Mekas, founder and director of Anthology Film Archives, New York; Luc Sante, author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts; and P. Adams Sitney, renowned authority on avant-garde film and professor of visual arts at Princeton University.

The listening and video stations will feature newly preserved materials from the Harry Smith Archives. Audio tracks from Smith's Materials for Study of the Religion and Culture of the Lower East Side and the Anthology of American Folk Music, a display of the original art from the anthology, and video selections from Harry Smith's films will be among the offerings.

On Friday, April 20, the first day of the symposium, the program features both discussion and a special performance with film and slide accompaniment by jazz artist and founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Percy Heath; his brother Albert "Tootie" Heath, and pianist Gerald Wiggins. The day culminates at 7:30 p.m. with a free film screening of rare Smith films. Along with contemporaries Kenneth Anger, Jordan Belson, and Oskar Fischinger, Smith was considered one of America's leading experimental filmmakers. He would often hand-paint directly on film creating unique, complex compositions that have been interpreted as investigations of conscious and unconscious mental processes. Selections in the screening range from the hand-painted Early Abstractions to his autobiographical travelogue Late Superimpositions and the seldom seen Film #16 Oz: The Tin Woodsman's Dream.

On Saturday, April 21, the discussion continues throughout the day and culminates at 7:30 p.m. with "No Depression in Heaven: An Exploration of Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music," an acoustic concert featuring Robert Lockwood, Jr., Geoff Muldaur, the Handsome Family, and other special guests. Presented in collaboration with noted producer Hal Willner, this will be a special tribute to Smith's legendary compilation recording.

Ticket and Reservation Information:

The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular Symposium and Film Screening:
For reservations for the symposium and film screening, or more information on Harry Smith or the Getty Research Institute, call the Getty Center at 310-440-7300 or log on to These two events are free, but reservations are required. Information on Smith is also available at

"No Depression in Heaven: An Exploration of Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music" Concert
This acoustic music concert is produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with noted producer Hal Willner. Tickets are $25 for students and $30 for the general public and are available through Tickets L.A. at 323-655-8587

UCLA Concerts:
Tickets to "Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project" at UCLA are available for $70, $50, $30, and $15 (UCLA students with valid I.D.) at the UCLA Central Ticket Office in the James West Alumni Center, online at, and at all Ticketmaster outlets. For more information or to charge by phone, call 310-825-2101. For UCLA concert press information contact Renee Johnson at 310-825-5202.

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About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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The Getty Research Institute is an operating program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It serves education in the broadest sense by increasing knowledge and understanding about art and its history through advanced research. The Research Institute provides intellectual leadership through its research, exhibition, and publication programs and provides service to a wide range of scholars worldwide through residencies, fellowships, online resources, and a Research Library. The Research Library - housed in the 201,000-square-foot Research Institute building designed by Richard Meier - is one of the largest art and architecture libraries in the world. The general library collections (secondary sources) include almost 900,000 volumes of books, periodicals, and auction catalogues encompassing the history of Western art and related fields in the humanities. The Research Library's special collections include rare books, artists' journals, sketchbooks, architectural drawings and models, photographs, and archival materials.