#278: Harry Smith (Ed.), "Anthology of American Folk Music" (1952)

Harry Everett Smith did not die on November 27, 1991. No, Harry Everett Smith disappeared—vanished, seemingly, without a trace in Room 328 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. The date of November 27 was provided by the missing man’s legal representatives to authorities and creditors as the official date of death after an exhaustive five-month search for the 68-year-old visual artist, self-educated student of anthropology and ethnography, and self-proclaimed mystic ended with far more questions than answers.

In the years leading up to his vanishing, the staff working at the Hotel Chelsea reported seeing Harry Everett Smith carrying boxes to Room 328, his permanent residence at the time, daily, sometimes two or three times a day. The boxes, often overflowing, consisted entirely of his eccentric collection of string figures, paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, and out-of-print records—artifacts, according to Harry Everett Smith, that represented man’s complexities and idiosyncrasies. Varying cultures’ manipulations of string for games, stories, and divinations fascinated the ethnographer; the age-long yearning for flight and transcendence found in paper airplanes astounded the anthropologist; the craft, geometry, and superstitions intertwined with Ukrainian Easter eggs bemused the artist and mystic; and the recordings of America’s past haunted the old man.

Management at the Hotel Chelsea feared, though, Harry Everett Smith’s room was becoming a site of hoarding brought about by his compulsive, decades-long ethnographic predilections. However, upon inspection, under the pretense of a supposed water leak in the room directly above 328, a maintenance worker reported that none of the boxes, nor any string figure, paper airplane, egg, or record, were found in the room, just the usual furnishings. Disbelieving this, hotel manager David Reed, pretending to give in-person courtesy calls to all 250 residents of the hotel, visited Harry Everett Smith’s room and discovered the maintenance worker was telling the truth: the room was, in fact, absent any boxes and collectibles. Curious about the final location of Smith’s collection, as he and the staff were sure they had only seen boxes going into the boarder’s room and never any coming out, Reed stopped Harry Everett Smith in the lobby one morning and asked the old man where he stored his collection. Harry Everett Smith simply replied, “Oh, I put them in storage.”

On June 11, 1991, poet Allen Ginsberg visited his close friend Harry Everett Smith at his hotel residence. There, the two men spent the evening listening to records and smoking marijuana while discussing America’s rapid approach towards the new millennium, a conversation that hampered the otherwise optimistic mood of the room. Ginsberg expressed concern about the direction of American poetry, while Harry Everett Smith conveyed unease with the current course of conservation for the world’s greatest treasures. Easter eggs, paper airplanes, and string figures—physical objects—could stand a chance against the specter of time through the adequate methods of preservation, but it was the ephemerality of music and its media that concerned him. Music lasts in fleeting moments. Those moments are often transcribed to physical objects for preservation, yes, but the physical objects of transcription were now becoming as ephemeral as the fleeting moments of music themselves. The relatively young CD technology, for example, with its supposed lossless sound and promised physical longevity, did not convince the collector. Not long after compact discs became available on the consumer market, Harry Everett Smith purchased Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits and was disheartened with the “disc rot” that began to appear over time—the  discoloration, or bronzing, of the disc caused by abrasions or oxidation of the reflective layer that rendered it unreadable, therefore unplayable. And magnetic tape recordings, with their susceptibility to sticky-shed syndrome, did not provide a stable alternative to the crisis of media preservation. Of course, Harry Everett Smith recognized that vinyl records were not without their faults, but the longevity of their form with the proper care, as far as he was concerned, was the proper path forward. He couldn’t help but smile at the idea of Voyagers 1 and 2, launched fourteen years prior, traveling across the cosmos with phonograph records, each containing greetings and salutations in 55 languages in addition to the sounds and music of Earth, and those records reaching the inhabitants of Gliese 445 in 40,000 years. “Who would listen and what would they think of us? Would we be worth their time? Would they want to know us?” were questions that Harry Everett Smith often pondered when he considered the two ambassadors. But with each iteration of media development, Harry Everett Smith feared that music, testimony to the human condition writ large, was on the verge of oblivion. In 40,000 years, the extraterrestrials of Gliese 445 could possibly hold in their prehensile organs the only available recordings of human existence, and upon visiting our blue world, discover us as frauds without evidence or proof of our humanity. Ginsberg, of course, giggling from the pot, tried to comfort his friend with the same kind of humanism that usually consoled Harry Everett Smith: man would find a way, as they always had, to preserve and curate, to carry on. To this reassurance, Harry Everett Smith responded, “I don’t want to think or know about what comes after this, but I have a plan.”

As the evening came to a close, Harry Everett Smith pulled out his six-LP compilation of American folk music, a compilation he curated from his personal collection of 78s and released in 1952 with the help of Folkways Records, and began to play Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator.” Ginsberg complemented his friend on the selection of songs on the compilation, a range of songs, he noticed, that highlighted the American folk tradition exquisitely. The collector thanked the poet for his praise and confided that there was, in fact, to be a seventh vinyl disc in the box set, but it was cut at the last minute during production due to cost. Ginsberg, enthusiastic and wanting to hear the songs that were excised, was told by Harry Everett Smith to return the following evening for another listening party as he needed to consult his archives for the seventh disc to do so. But when Ginsberg returned the next day, Harry Everett Smith was not in his room nor would he ever be in the room again. June 11 was the last time Harry Everett Smith was ever seen.


Two weeks after his disappearance, the Hotel Chelsea management closed Harry Everett Smith’s account and was in the process of removing his belongings from the premises, what little effects he had, when hotel maid Esmeralda Díaz discovered the steel 6-foot x 3-foot door in the back of the hotel closet. Upon opening the steel door, Esmeralda Díaz entered a temperature-controlled corridor of approximately 50 feet in length with four doors, two on each wall. Díaz, curious, opened one of the doors to discover a large room with hundreds of rows of shelves. On the nearest shelf, the maid could make out string figures pinned to black felt boards. The maid immediately closed the door and reported the discovery to hotel manager David Reed, prompting an investigation by both hotel officials and members of the Smith estate. By all intents and purposes, the door should not have existed. The head maintenance official could not find evidence of the door, nor the corridor and rooms, in the hotel plans. Dimensionally, and logically, the door should have led to the brick wall facing the back alley of the Hotel Chelsea and the four rooms to the parallel streets north and south of the block. But the door, and its corridor and rooms, were inexplicably there, and apparently, so was Harry Everett Smith’s collection. These rooms were Harry Everett Smith’s archives.

A week after the door was discovered, Henry Wallace, Smith’s lawyer and estate executor, appointed the task of cataloging Harry Everett Smith’s collection to four paralegals. This is what the paralegals discovered when they began the process of cataloging: Each room was devoted to one of Harry Everett Smith’s ethnographic predilections, and in that given room, every iteration of that artifact could be found shelved. For example, in Room A, the string figure gallery, one would discover every variation and permutation of the Apache rug: Apache rugs starting from one inch and intermittently moving up in size by the half-inch, as well as constructed from every material known to man, organic and inorganic. Apache rugs made of cotton twine, sisa, jute, hemp, henequen, coir and other natural fibers before moving to twine of every metallic base. In Room B, one would find a paper airplane in every variant: different sizes and weighted sheets in every imaginable color in the spectrum, from A to Z: Absolute Zero, Acid Green, Aero, Aero Blue, African Violet, Air Force Blue, Air Superiority Blue, Alabaster, Alice Blue and so on and so forth. The same could be found in the vinyl record gallery, Room C: every pressing, national and international, of every given release starting at “Aa” was there, and each album had hundreds upon hundreds of copies to account for the variations in sound inherent in each one—each record’s sound conditioned by the production and handling of the individual record. The categorization of every permutation from A to Z was a mere hypothesis, though. After spending two months in Room C, their days inside increasing each week, the four paralegals had not left the first entry of the library—the first record archived—and there seemed to be no end in sight to that particular record. The same was for the cases of Rooms A, B, and D: the rooms and shelves were seemingly infinite in length with infinite entries. Given Harry Everett Smith’s rigid and precise archival tendencies, the Smith estate could only come to the natural conclusion that the four rooms were infinite archives, his own Library of Babel.

Allen Ginsberg, learning of the seemingly boundless library, and remembering Harry Everett Smith’s request of the poet, posited that, perhaps, his friend was lost in his own library. Against the wishes of his partner, Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg decided to mount an expedition into the library to find Harry Everett Smith. Ginsberg recruited the help of Smith’s lawyer, Wallace, a competent mountain climber and backpacker, and college-student videographer Richard Clark as the third party. The three men entered Room C on August 31 and returned to the Hotel Chelsea nearly three months later, on November 20. All three men were malnourished and unkempt when re-entering the hotel room and in varying states of distress. Ginsberg and Wallace screamed and raved unintelligibly about what they had experienced in the library, while Clark, on the other hand, returned in an almost catatonic state. Clark simply handed over a tape recording of the expedition and retreated into seclusion.

The day before Harry Everett Smith was officially declared dead, members of the Smith family and the Wallace firm convened and listened to the Smith Rescue Expedition tape to hopefully explain the disappearance of Harry Everett Smith and to determine the cause of Ginsberg, Wallace, and Clark’s mental declines. This is what they heard: In week five of their expedition, the three men—Ginsberg, Wallace, and Clark—could hear the faint sound of folk music playing in the distance, which, to the three men, could only be coming from Harry Everett Wallace. However, after three weeks of trying to find the source, the three rescuers never seemed to get closer: the immeasurable library appeared to be echoing the music off its never-ending walls and shelves, making the music travel farther than the three men were capable of trekking. Taunted by the reverberations of the fathomless archive, in addition to its immense size, the three explorers reached almost complete mental breakdowns. The fact that the three returned to the Hotel Chelsea alive was considered a near miracle.

Immediately after listening to the tape, and under the recommendation of the Smith family and Wallace firm, Hotel Chelsea management closed the door to the infinite library, permanently sealing shut an extensive collection of string figures, paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, out-of-print records, and presumably, Harry Everett Smith.

—Dillon Hawkins