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John Szwed with Bret Lunsford

The Unsung Story of Harry Smith, a Counterculturist Icon

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Fri Sep 15, 2023
7:30 pm PDT


The Wyncote NW Forum
1119 8th Ave (Entrance off Seneca St.)
Seattle, 98101 United States
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Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith (Hardcover)

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Arts & Culture

Some cultural movements are so impactful that they actually change the way we think.

New ideas come in to challenge older, more conventional forms of thought. During the counterculture movement in the 1960s, radical ideas and alternative philosophies created a cultural wave so massive that the entire country felt a shift. But despite the size of the movement, history tends to credit just a few pioneers for its impact. Figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are all but household names, overshadowing people who were equally involved in the counterculture of the 60s. One such overshadowed figure is Harry Smith.

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In life, Harry Smith was an anthropologist, filmmaker, painter, folklorist, mystic, and walking encyclopedia. He created experimental, innovative works of art and kept close company with prominent bohemian figures of the 1950s and 60s. He taught Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe about the occult, sat at the piano with Thelonious Monk, argued with Susan Sontag, and even lived with Allen Ginsberg.

Until now, no official biography of Harry Smith had ever been released. Now, Grammy Award-winning music scholar and biographer John Szwed tells the story of this overlooked cultural force in his new book, Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith. Szwed is no stranger to biography, having chronicled the lives of music legends such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra.

Join us at Town Hall, where John Szwed will make the case for immortalizing the name Harry Smith alongside other beloved counterculture artists.

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.

Bret Lunsford is a founding member of the bands Beat Happening and D+. In addition to his own musical endeavors, Lunsford operates the loose collective of Knw-Yr-Own, an independent record and bookmaker based in his hometown of Anacortes, Washington. He is also a writer of history, author of Croatian Fishing Families of Anacortes and Sounding for Harry Smith: Early Pacific Northwest Influences. He graduated from Evergreen State College in 1988. He is the Anacortes Museum director. 

Presented by Town Hall Seattle.

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