The Mysticism of Record Collection

Last week I wrote a searching (maybe aimlessly wandering) article in which I tried to figure out what exactly a library is. I didn’t come up with a good answer. But it started me thinking about all the odd collections of things that people acquire, not called libraries, but originating with the same impetus I assume the first and all subsequent libraries began: a place of longing for the things we have, the things we find important, to be remembered. Which is why a recent article in the City Paper caught my eye. Baynard Woods gives a personal and celebratory review of music writer Amanda Petrusich’s new book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. Her book, while circling her own compulsion toward collecting rare blues and jazz records, forgos the personal for the journalistic and historic culture of cult LP collectors. She, at one point in the book, focuses on the legendary collector and anthologist Harry Smith, known for compiling one of the most important and influential folk compilations of all time, Anthology of American Folk Music–he, though, is as well regarded for his films, artwork, and bohemian mysticism; just an all-around strange, interesting anomaly of a dude. Petrusich describes him in a succinct and illuminating section of her book:

Smith, who died in 1991 in room 328 of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, a building already infamous for its output of body bags, was the kind of guy who designed his own tarot cards. He was a dedicated mystic, a consecrated bishop in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica … and, supposedly, an initiated Lummi shaman. He palled around with folks like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, and was eventually appointed “Shaman in Residence” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado…. Along with records and rare books, which he arranged on his shelves by height, Smith collected Seminole textiles, hand-decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs, and anything shaped like a hamburger. He lived with a goldfish in a series of tiny apartments crammed with ephemera (quilts, weavings, clay models, mounted string figures, women’s dresses). In 1984 he donated “the largest known paper airplane collection in the world”—sourced exclusively from the streets of New York City—to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Smith was also an obsessive chronicler of found sound, be it the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians or the wheezing vagrants of the Lower East Side; one Fourth of July he recorded every single noise he encountered.

Much of the work Smith collected cataloged and anthologized was very nearly lost and forgotten. He changed the perception of traditional American music, what it was, who produced it and when. The category of “folk music” was immeasurably changed and expanded after a lone collector brought his idiosyncratic collection into the light of day. Maybe Harry Smith, and all the other Harry Smiths out there, will bring us closer to an understanding of what a library actually is. 

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