by Greil Marcus, October 29, 2010 9:42 AM
Just as Walter Mosley's series of Los Angeles detective stories always pointed toward the day when Easy Rawlins was going to have to reckon with the Watts riots, resulting in Little Scarlet
(2004) which trumped every book before it, in James Lee Burke's long-running series of Dave Robicheaux Lousiana murder mysteries, it was always going to be hard for him to match the post-Katrina The Tin Roof Blowdown
, which appeared in 2007. In The Glass Rainbow
, from this year, Burke increases the horror register, but the social dimensions he's brought into his books in the past is missing, and the atrocities in the book, and the fiends behind them, don't even seem to connect to each other. Robicheaux's musings on his life as a New Orleans cop — or, in the present, a sheriff's deputy in Iberia parish — is as compelling as the action:
Over the years, I had come to believe that almost all homicides, to one degree or another, are premeditated. A man who enters a convenience store with a loaded pistol has already made a decision about its possible use. A person who commits an abduction, knowing nothing about the victim's heart condition or that of the victim's loved ones, has already decided on the side of self-interest and is not worried about the fate of others...there is an explicit motivation in almost every homicide, even one committed in apparent blind rage.
It's a philosophy that can jump to the level of the metaphysical in an instant, with a line that with bare rewriting, or resigning, could find its place in a murder ballad like "Pretty Polly" or "Stagger Lee": "I do not believe the rage the dead experience can be contained by the grave."
Burke leaves almost everything hanging at the end of this book, but it's certain that the indomitable and unimpeachably honest Helen Soileau, once Robicheaux's partner, now his boss, and the only person he will suffer to curse in his presence, survives it. She is the real mystery in the series, and especially here: if her lines aren't as hard-boiled as they've been before, it's because she's no longer a foil, but a full, if spectral, presence on the page: angry, frustrated, with her own hidden motives, her ethics in question, her past, whatever it is, beginning to catch up with her. If there's a book to follow this one she could take center stage, and then anything could
by Greil Marcus, October 28, 2010 10:26 AM
In a class yesterday, I played two minstrel songs from the 1840s — songs originally performed by white men in blackface. There was Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters' "West Virginia Gals," recorded in 1928, collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four
, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Snowden's Jig (Original Negro Jig)," from their Original Negro Jig
— released just this year.
"West Virginia Gals" is a comic number about people from so far back in the woods they change their socks once a year (whether they rot off or not) and live in shacks without windows and with floors made out of pumpkin rinds. In 1841, when it first appeared in sheet music, it was called "Free Nigger," and warned Virginia girls about the degradation of boys from the Carolinas. In the Al Hopkins version, with a lumbering beat and a my-voice-is-breaking vocal, you can still see the minstrel clowns — with their falling-down pants and flopping shoes, their smashed hats and pompous ties, with their mush-mouthed plantation accents and constant haw-haw-haw — stumbling all over the stage, bumping into each other, one burnt-cork showman playing the girl and another the boy as a third relates his tale of the woe certain to befall the first if she's dumb enough to fall for the second. Though by the time Al Hopkins took up the tune, passed down from generation to generation, moving from one state to another — West Virginia didn't exist until 1863, when the pro-Union part of Virginia seceded from the Confederate version — turning from a song about stupid black people to a song about stupid white people ("the West Virginia race," stupid by nature, or inbreeding), you can still hear what the song said in 1841: people like this were born to be slaves. It's their natural condition. They're not fit for anything else. And look how happy they are, rooting in the dirt like pigs!
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are Justin Robinson (fiddle, beatbox, autoharp), Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, banjo, kazoo), and Don Flemons (bones, guitar, banjo, jug, drums) — four young African-Americans with a perfect name for an early-20th-century minstrel troupe made up of black people in blackface. No matter how dark one's skin, it could always be made blacker, which is to say, less human. No matter how big your lips, they could always be made bigger, with the fat white face in the middle of the black face symbolizing mindless appetite and the inability to form the distinct vowels and consonants of the English language. The Chocolate Drops use their name as a foil against itself.
"Snowden's Jig," the notes to their album relate, came from the Snowden family of Clinton, Ohio — African-Americans, headed by Thomas Snowden, whose farm stood next to that of the family of Dan Emmett, the most celebrated blackface minstrel of them all. The Snowdens were performers, composers, singers, featuring, especially, fiddle duets by Sophia and Annie Snowden. Dan Emmett took — or bought — the Snowden jig and named it "Original Negro Jig": in minstrelsy, blackface authenticity was so valued Emmett and his rivals had scouts trawling the plantations for the latest dances and chants.
"The Original Negro Jig" came from another side of the minstrel stage — or from behind it. It's a testament to the still-heretical argument of the American cultural historian Constance Rourke, from 1931, in her American Humor, that from behind the blackface mask, the true voice of the slave could be heard: a voice of defeat, tragedy, death, and desire, a dream of perdition, a dream of escape. The Chocolate Drops took the wordless song from sheet music — and in their hands it is a dream so strong you can picture it leaving its stage and flying out of the hall in its own body, a musical acting out of the slave dream of flying back to Africa.
At under four minutes, it seems to last for seven, eight — there's no real time in the performance. Giddens sounds as if she duets with herself on fiddle; Flemmons's bones are an eerie, otherworldly interjection, as if rooting the flight Giddens dramatizes back in the dirt. The ping of a triangle seems to start the story over again from the beginning every time it sounds. Hand-clapping by Robinson gives the dream flesh, makes this not a cultural survival but the testament of a particular individual, someone speaking to you.
As the piece goes on, and Giddens returns to the uncanny bends in the ends of the melody, she jiggles her strings, or makes them shake, vibrate: the feeling is that the instrument is playing itself, that it has received cues from the player that the player herself can't hear, or can't bring herself to consciously play. A sense of jeopardy, of danger and fright, trills off the strings. You don't know where you are. You don't know who's playing or when. You imagine a gang of blackfaced white men performing this song before the Civil War. Never mind what the audience thought it was hearing: Real Nigger Music, the Real Thing! What were the performers hearing as they played? Were they thieves or mediums?
As you listen, you can hear the song move from a black man to a white man to a white man in blackface to three young black people 160 years later. You can follow the song's journey in an instant. You can play it all day long, until time shifts under your
by Greil Marcus, October 27, 2010 10:00 AM
In a graduate seminar on criticism last week at the New School in New York, one of the readings was the late film critic Pauline Kael's "The Glamour of Delinquency," a piece from 1955 collected in her first book, I Lost It at the Movies
, in 1965. She was writing about On the Waterfront
and East of Eden
, Blackboard Jungle
and Rebel Without a Cause
— and in her first two pages, right at the heart of the false drama of the Cold War and the true sitcom of post-war prosperity, she summed up the critical project in about three sentences.
"A 'regular' movie says yes to the whole world or it says not much of anything," was her first line, a gauntlet thrown down at her own subject: anticipating her quoting of Melville on Hawthorne ("He says No! in thunder, and the Devil himself cannot make him say yes") two decades later at the end of her review of The Godfather Part II, it said that a critic had to look for the no in her terrain or she herself would say not much of anything. In the same paragraph, "Even statements that are true seem hypocritical when no longer informed with fire and idealism" was a critical manifesto in 15 words — one that could be used against the critic, should she fail her own test, as surely as it could hold any so-called artist, or any president, to its mark. And in the next two paragraphs —
Our mass culture has always been responsive to the instincts and needs of the public. Though it exploits these needs without satisfying them, it does nonetheless throw up images that indicate social tensions and undercurrents. Without this responsiveness mass culture would sink of its own weight. But it doesn't sink...When the delinquent becomes the hero in our films, it's because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people they don't dare express
— was both a social theory and an aesthetic theory that rooted both statements in everyday life, and wove her gauntlet into her manifesto: it falls to the critic to say precisely — as clearly, as plainly, and as entertainingly — what many people feel but do not dare to express.
No, she didn't say anything about being entertaining. With sentences like "'Good theater' is an elaborate set of techniques for throwing dust in the eyes of the audience, dust, which to many theater-trained minds, is pure gold," she didn't have to.
by Greil Marcus, October 26, 2010 10:38 AM
At the Library of Congress last Thursday, Todd Harvey, of the American Folklife Center, brought out boxes of treasures. There was a set of aluminum-core Robert Johnson acetates prepared by the Columbia producer George Avakian and Alan Lomax of the Library in 1940, and the prison-and-pardons record of one Walter Boyd, a.k.a. Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. There were letters from Lead Belly, on his own show-biz stationery, to Alan Lomax's father, John Lomax, the great folklorist who had helped get him out of prison and onto the stage, and from Muddy Waters, begging Alan Lomax for copies of the records he'd made with him, and then for the money he had been promised (bureaucratic delays, Lomax wrote back to "Muddy Water"). There was a typewritten letter to "Mr. John A. Lomacks" from James Baker of Otey, Texas, dated 1941, with lyrics to songs Baker hoped Lomax would want to record:
Little Boy who fooled You on the river
Yellow woman fooled Me on the river
in them long hot summer days
— which is almost a novel —
I'm gonna chop all my good time away
If it takes Me all day, gonna chop
dese wees if it takes Me all day
chop all my good time away
— which is almost mystical in its vision of good time vanishing into the air. And then this:
I looked upon the hillside, I saw old Moster coming
with a bull whip in one hand, and A tie string in the
other, to tie My hands together, You order Heard Me
holler, He said no' get down Your britches, for
I love to hear You holler, I will give You A half A
Old Mistress and old Moster, sitting in the parlor
Figuring and studying, how to work A nigger harder
The story hides in the words, in the spelling: old Master... old Moster... old Monster.
There were other documents, and in their specificity, in their official status, they hit just as hard. That same year, in 1941, John Lomax apparently began an investigation into the death of Bessie Smith, the result of injuries sustained in a a car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi, four years before. The story, circulated by John Hammond in a 1937 article in the jazz magazine Down Beat, and soon an article of faith among jazz musicians, jazz fans, and folklorists, was that Bessie Smith had died only after being turned away from local hospitals that refused to treat blacks — a story now discredited, mainly on the grounds that no driver anywhere near Clarksdale, Mississippi, would have for a second entertained the notion of taking an African-American, no matter how severe her injuries, to a white hospital.
For some reason, Lomax wrote the city government of Memphis, some 60 miles from Clarksdale. Walter Chandler, the mayor of Memphis, replied two days later to Lomax's letter of August 6:
I have never heard the story which you mention, but will be glad to make an investigation and let your hear from me as soon as possible.
Sadly, the Country is infested with negro communists who seek to poison their own people against their best friends, and I am glad to have the opportunity to join in establishing the facts, which I am sure will disprove the story.
Mayor Chandler wrote to Lomax at much greater length precisely a month later, including a copy of Bessie Smith's death certificate, and noting that as the certificate recorded that Smith's arm was amputated before her death, "she received hospital treatment following the accident." "I have checked all the Memphis hospitals," he went on,
and find no record whatever of Bessie Smith having been brought to any of them...Any statement that this woman was refused medical aid in Memphis is untrue. One of the best hospitals in the South is the John Gaston Hospital here, in which approximately 75% of the patients are negroes. It is operated by the City of Memphis, and we never have refused treatment to anyone — regardless of race, color or creed...I have inquired of a number of prominent colored [the last word is written in the margin of the typescript] citizens about the Bessie Smith case, and not one has any knowledge of her having been brought to Memphis for treatment.
The mayor was right; Bessie Smith was nowhere near Memphis on the night of September 26, 1937. The mayor was exasperated. But he had, apparently, done precisely what a public official is supposed to do. And what is folklore, anyway? It's not only stories, true or false: the Hammond version of Smith's death is itself now folklore, and it will never disappear. Folklore resides in the manner in which stories are told, the manner in which the details of those stories reveal ways of life that have vanished to us. The mayor's actions ought to speak to us today as American folklife as much as the slavery-survivals in the lyrics passed on by James Baker. "I have checked all the Memphis hospitals." Walter Chandler could have been saying that he had his secretary call up the various hospitals and ask if they'd ever heard of Bessie Smith. But I doubt
by Greil Marcus, October 25, 2010 12:25 PM
My nightmare headline for November 3:
OBAMA RESIGNS AFTER GOP SWEEP
Admits Kenyan birth, Muslim Faith
A book I published this month with PublicAffairs, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, begins with the story of a rumor in Berkeley 42 years ago and ends at a Dylan concert on election night, on the campus of the University of Minnesota — Dylan's erstwhile alma mater, where he had never played before — 40 years after that. I didn't think that last piece was naïve when I wrote that America was not less racist the day after the election than it had been the day before it, and that there was no telling what kind of president a President Obama would be. But in fact the essay was, and is, almost moronically naïve.
I didn't expect that the Republican minorities in the House and the Senate would practice their own version of the Massive Resistance that the white South, which rested on the almost complete disenfranchisement of African-Americans, would promulgate after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. I didn't expect people at Tea Party rallies with signs that read "THE ZOO HAS AN AFRICAN LION AND THE WHITE HOUSE HAS A LYIN' AFRICAN" including, in some versions, Obama with a bone through his nose implying, among countless other things, that Obama, or all black people, belongs in a zoo.
Massive Resistance, in the 1950s and '60s, included the firebombing of homes and churches, murders by individuals, and organized lynchings. Massive Resistance today includes the conscious fostering a climate of assassination on the part of both Republican functionaries and leaders. Nothing would more effectively destroy the will of Democratic politicians than proof that their votes could get them killed. I don't mean that Republicans are working to kill Democrats, but that they are working to create a climate in which the murder of a political opponent will eviscerate their opposition.
Despite the all but unspoken fears of so many that a black president could not live, and the increase in threats against a sitting president logged by the Secret Service over the last two years (Time recently reported that the James von Brunn, who murdered an African-American guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2009, planned to kill White House adviser David Alexrod, because Obama was "too hard to reach"), for Republicans there is no need, and probably no real desire, to see Obama dead. That would be too much and, really, any office holder would do. Not even a senator, a representative, or a governor would be needed. A candidate for any such office would suffice; so would a mayor, a state legislator, or perhaps even a school board member.
"Nobody likes paying taxes," Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts joked on Fox News last February 18, shortly after his election, in reference to the action of Andrew Stack who flew a plane into an IRS office in Austin, killing an African-American government worker. "I don't know if it's related," he went on, "but I can just sense, not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated, they want transparency, they want their elected officials to be accountable and open, and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure if there's a connection, I certainly hope not, but we need to do things better." Other Republicans said much the same doing their best, while keeping their ties straight, to legitimize the murder of representatives of the federal government.
Such a strain was evident at McCain rallies in the weeks before election day in 2008, with some of his supporters shouting "Traitor!," "Terrorist!," or "Kill him!" at the mention of Obama's name shouts McCain finally tried to talk down. In this election year traitor, socialist, communist, and tyrant are commonplace buzzwords of Republicans for their Democratic opponents of any stripe Obama first of all, but anyone who has supported or might support any initiative he might propose is infected with the same virus. And the project of altogether negating the legitimacy of the other side — which begins, most fundamentally, with the fantasy that the United States of America all but negated its Constitution by making a man president who, if not illegitimate in the common sense, is far more deeply illegitimate as the face of the country itself (in 2008, Scott Brown told an interviewer that while he had no reason to doubt that Barack Obama was born in the United States and when the interviewer mentioned that Obama's parents were married, he replied "Well, I don't know about that;" just as Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, replied to a question about Obama's Christian faith with "I'll take his word for it") can legitimately take any form at
by Greil Marcus, April 17, 2010 3:32 PM
Describe your latest book/project/work.
When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison is what it says it is. It's somebody listening to Van Morrison and listening for those moments all across his career where he seems to break through the boundaries of ordinary communication and go into a realm of both ecstasy and revelation. He can't do this whenever he wants to; it doesn't happen according to plan. Sometimes you can hear him try and fail, but what he's aiming for can be just as vivid in his inability to reach it as it can be when he does reach it. It is a book that goes back to 1965, to the time of his very first record, right up to the present, leaping all around his music trying to find affinities between songs and performances rather than tracing any false notion of growth, development, or evolution. He has always been on a musical quest and that quest hasn't changed.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In 1976 Francis Coppola bought City magazine in San Francisco and he told me he wanted me to review every movie on TV every week. This was pre-cable so there weren't hundreds of channels, but there were still between 100 and 200 movies a week. Some of them were on incredibly dodgy low-fi channels. They would buy packages of B-movies from the '30s and '40s that were either totally unheard of or completely forgotten and they'd program them all day long. I sat down with many reference books and movie guides and I reviewed every movie every day on every TV channel for a year. I never had so much fun in my life as a writer, both because a lot of it I had to make up, but sometimes in a week there'd be parallels, like five movies about someone who killed his uncle. There'd be this running theme between France, the United States, the '30s, the '50s — you could see some sort of universal mind at work.
Introduce one other author you think people should read and suggest a good book with which to start.
My recommendation is The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. It's unfair and unfriendly because it's an 800-page book, but I think it's the most important, moving, ambitious, successful, beautifully written novel in the last 20 years, at least by an American. When you give someone an 800-page book you're either making a claim on their time you have no right to make or you're making them feel terrible by giving them a book that they're never going to read. Yet I really do believe that if people start it they will be completely sucked into it. It's the story of a émigré German Jewish physicist and an African-American woman from Philadelphia, a singer, who meet in the crowd at Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. And it's about the family they create but also, as they understand it, the little America that they are creating in the heart of the malevolent America. They're going to re-found the country and start its story all over again in their family. The book is the story of the tragedy that comes out of that.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or why not?
False. Even when writers are lying, even when they're perpetrating a hoax in a certain way, they're trying to tell the truth. The demand of writing, of any form you choose to write in, is to get it right, to make the sentences work together, to make it sound believable, even to you. Even when you know writers are lying underneath all the masks of fraud, hoax, and vanity, they are nevertheless telling the truth in a way that someone who's trying to sell you something, whether it's a house or a hot watch, isn't.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn't explain anything important." (Albert Camus, Combat newspaper, 1947)
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I read a review in MOJO magazine about a book called Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth. It's a novel about London from 1959 to 1965; in other words, it takes place during the emergence of the Beatles, swinging London, London bohemia, and the art world. It starts out with a spiritualist promise, where the heroine dreams crimes that then take place. This is the last sort of thing I'm interested in or find remotely convincing. And yet I'd read a previous book by her and she's a tremendous writer. When you're reading you have no sense of whether the writer is male or female, young or old — she completely inhabits her territory. So I kept reading. It's a murder mystery, it's a novel about friendship, it's a portrait of the city at a particular time, and it's absolutely alive. When I finished I wanted to read her next one, whatever it's about.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I'm a great believer in what I've always called ambient research. You go to a place where something you're interested in or writing about happened and you look around, because there will be something there, some detail in the architecture, the people, the neighborhood, the color of the building, or the room, that no one would've thought to tell you about. No one else would've felt was interesting. The most interesting literary pilgrimage I ever made was to the Cabaret Voltaire, the great Dada night club from 1916 Zurich. When I first got to Zurich I walked across the river, found my way to the site, and found a plaque. No one would've ever thought to tell me that in 1983 the cabaret was occupied by a teen and 20s disco. I just thought that was so perfect.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
It's a long story. In 1980 I was writing a music column for California magazine and I got a letter from a reader discussing what I'd written and going way beyond it. I was writing about the band New Order and the letter was very, very long and everything about it was funny, interesting, wonderfully written. The writer had a fabulous punning sense of humor; he was drawing intellectual connections and making philosophical arguments just in the way he would compound words. It was really hard to keep up with him, he was that quick. So I wrote him back and said, Why are you wasting your time writing to me when you ought to be publishing? I put him in touch with different editors, and he started publishing pieces in the Boston Phoenix, the Village Voice and Artforum.