Harry and Sara

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excerpt from Scott Borchert (http://therumpus.net):

1943: Harry Smith, twenty years old, spends much of his free time visiting local Pacific Northwest Indian tribes, recording their ceremonies, gathering artifacts, and assembling dictionaries of their languages. The American Magazine publishes an article about Smith along with a photo of him recording a Lummi spirit dance.

The caption reads: “Gray-bearded professors regard this teenage anthropologist with respect. He’s Harry Smith, who at 15 began making expeditions by bicycle from his home in South Bellingham, Wash., to the primitive Indian tribes of Washington and British Columbia … Harry has found Indians friendly except when drunk, or suspicious that he’s a German spy.”

Of course Smith is a kind of spy—backed by no institution but his formidable curiosity, assigned no mission other than his compulsive need to assemble information. Smith feels no qualms about being a spy, or even a voyeur.

In the book American Magus, Smith’s former assistant Rani Singh quotes him: “When I was a child somebody came to school one day and said they’d been to an Indian dance and they saw someone swinging a skull on the end of a string; so I thought, hmmm, I have to see this.”

1945: Harry Smith learns that Sara Carter, from the influential folk group the Carter Family, is living in California’s Gold Rush country. He tracks Carter down and finds her sewing patchwork quilts.

In a 1968 interview with Sing Out! magazine, Smith recalls photographing the quilts and pressing Carter to reveal some kind of underlying pattern he believes is contained within both the quilts and her music: “I tried to get her to name certain designs which she thought resembled certain songs. She didn’t understand me or what I was trying to say. It was some kind of a Rorschach response-like thing.”

 

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