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For Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith

“The first comprehensive biography of this hipster magus.… [John Szwed] allows different sides of Smith’s personality to catch blades of sun. He brings the right mixture of reverence and comic incredulity to his task.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[A] highly enjoyable biography … Cosmic Scholar is an impressively full portrait of an erratic subject.” —Timothy Farrington, Wall Street Journal


“Szwed confronted both a mammoth and chaotic trove of materials and an even larger void of tragically lost artworks and collections as he assiduously and passionately constructed this engrossing, revelatory, often beyond-belief portrait of a reckless, maddening, cosmic, and transformational genius.” —Booklist


“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


“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

“Szwed, piece by obscure piece, masterfully puts [Harry Smith’s] puzzle of a life together…. A revelatory portrait of a unique pop-culture figure.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Harry Smith was a mythic figure in plain sight, a twentieth-century counterpart to Athanasius Kircher or John Dee, and he always seemed more legend than fact, even in his lifetime — even in the same room. John Szwed’s dedicated and hard-nosed biography gathers all the evidence, weighs it judiciously, and delivers a nuanced portrait of the mass of contradictions that was Harry.” —Lucy Sante, author of Nineteen Reservoirs

“Harry Smith was one of those underground geniuses who truly was a genius, a maddening, willful, unkempt scrounger of immense intellect whose greatest achievement inflected modern culture and who achieved much more besides. Smith’s mercurial life should have defied any biographer, yet John Szwed, amazingly, has pulled it off, with discrimination as well as sympathy.” —Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America

“With quirky brilliance fitting the subject, John Szwed shows how Harry Smith was much more than a bohemian caricature. He was an early master of creative curation and a pre-digital influencer: a profound influence on people who influenced people we recognize as profoundly influential.” —David Hajdu, author of Love For Sale: Pop Music in America

“Best-known for his labor-intensive experimental films and indispensable Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith was an impoverished polymath, multiculti practically from birth — because he cherished repressed realities — and too spiky to fit even a slot in the counter-culture. Yet Harry Smith influenced the influencers. Now thanks to John Szwed and his crackerjack research, this visionary is no longer a complete enigma.” —Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

“Harry Smith did more than compile the world’s most influential mixtape; he was a polymath creator, scholar, anthropologist, film maker and premier-league New York City art scene hustler. John Szwed’s an anthropologist, too, but also a mystery writer, drawn to figures like Smith and Sun Ra in part for their spectacular unknowability. This biography again transforms facts into magic-laced storytelling — which is what Smith was all about.” —Will Hermes, author of Lou Reed: The King of New York

“A tormented transcontinental seer who lived like a freeloading visitor from another dimension, Harry Smith existed in obscure subcultures but knew every important artist, writer, musician, and filmmaker from the 1930s to the 1980s. John Szwed’s book captures the druggie angel/devil hoarder musicologist/filmmaker at work building a new reality, one we’d inhabit today if we could get to it.” —A. S. Hamrah, author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018

For Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth


“Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim. More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday’s enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a “meditation” on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, “The Myth,” is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday’s persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, “The Musician,” which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday’s career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday’s innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions. As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.” —Kirkus Reviews

For Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

[A starred review] “Factually tireless and fluently analytical, Szwed gamely corrals a great river of events, efforts, and discoveries into a straight-ahead portrait of an intrepid, culture-defining artist and humanist.” —Booklist

“Szwed is a sensitive interpreter of music… he is meticulous about the work, and makes a strong case for Lomax as a central figure in the history of American music.” —The New Yorker

“A keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography.” —New York Times

“John Szwed has written a graceful and informative cradle-to-grave study that’s a perfect marriage of author and subject.” —Douglas Brinkley, Texas Monthly

“Szwed admirably captures the efforts of a man who seemed determined to honor what came before him.” —The Washington Post

“An informative, compelling and magnificent biography.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

Szwed’s biography is a worthy testament to Lomax’s passions and ideals, which gifted the world some of the most important American recordings ever made.” —New Staesman

“John Szwed’s biography is meticulous, measured and finely detailed… essential reading.” —Irish Times

“In capturing his multifaceted life, Szwed has succeeded in the kind of Herculean task that his subject would have tacked with relish” —Times of London

“[Szwed] records Lomax’s life much as Lomax recorded musicians on field trips, taking care to present the man and his achievements in their social, political and intellectual context.… [he] succeeds magnificently.” —Financial Times

“***** An absorbing portrait of a fascinating life — whether or not you give two figs about folk music. —TimeOut London

“Szwed captures Lomax with all his contradictions intact, refusing to tidy him up.” —Los Angeles Times

“Szwed does a bang-up job… The author expertly weaves together the contradictions of Lomax himself… while also chronicling a century of political and social change through the prism of song.… This lovingly-presented tome offers the perfect tribute.” —Record Collector

Szwed’s insight into the personal dynamics of [Lomax’s] principles weaves what could have been a dry, academic, musicology tome into a sweeping drama populated by compelling characters, lively settings and — of course — all that great music.” —American Songwriter

“Szwed’s deeply researched biography brings Lomax to life and illustrates that our understanding of American music would not be the same without his contributions to the study of American folklore.” —Library Journal

“Required reading.” —New York Post

Book of the Week.” —The Guardian

“Editor’s Choice: “One of the great books of the brand new year.” —Buffalo News

“Szwed delineates Lomax’s work down to the last detail… Lomax emerges as a brilliant, driven and often conflicted man who revolutionized the study of folk music.” —Kirkus

For So What: The Life of Miles Davis

“…Szwed offers crisply detailed backstories to such masterpieces as Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead. His prose has a musical pulse, and he highlights the most significant element of Davis’s soul: “he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends.” Davis’s music has been called a “divine disease,” and this in-depth study clarifies the nature of that compulsive, satisfying malady in a way that will enlighten listeners and musicians.”

—Publishers Weekly

For Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

“…Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography–one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny.”

—Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review