By John Szwed
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2023)
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, sat at the piano with Thelonious Monk, lived with (and tortured) Allen Ginsberg, argued film with Susan Sontag, and received one of the first Guggenheim grants. He was always broke, always 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, 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 living 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. He was “so devious,” said Ginsberg, and “so saintly.”
Exhaustively researched, energetically told, and complete with a trove of images, Cosmic Scholar is a feat of biographical restoration and the long overdue deification of an American icon.
“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
“[An] 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
“Szwed, piece by obscure piece, masterfully puts [Harry Smith’s] puzzle of a life together . . . . A revelatory portrait of a unique pop-culture figure.”
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.