W.C. Handy and Buddy Bolden

This morning, while reading about the early years of phonograph and gramophone and thus the imprint of technology on the evolution of “popular” music, it occurred to me that there are two tales of music heard but not recorded that are foundational in the history of blues and jazz—that is, of the vital part played in Nacirema musical evolution by Black music(s) of the rural and urban South.

W.C. Handy

One tale finds bandleader W.C. Handy waiting for a train in Tutwiler, MS in (probably) 1903, and

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’’The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.
(from Handy’s 1941 autobiography)

…The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south; the Y&MV (sometimes called the Yazoo Delta or Y.D.) was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” After moving to Memphis in 1905, Handy adapted the blues into a series of compositions that helped sparked America’s first blues craze, including “Memphis Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and, most popularly, the classic “St. Louis Blues.” He was already being hailed as the “Daddy of the Blues” by 1919.

1922 W.C. Handy Yellow Dog Blues

1925 Bessie Smith Yellow Dog Blues

1954 Louis Armstrong Yellow Dog Blues

2010 Tuba Skinny Yellow Dog Blues

Buddy Bolden

Royal Stokes summary:

Some consider “Funky Butt” the oldest known jazz tune. It was Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941) who bestowed the title “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” upon it and fashioned his own lyrics. Jelly made two commercial recordings of the song, in 1939, rendering it as a solo piano piece and as a band number. It is also included in the epic 1938 Library of Congress session that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded of Morton telling the story of his life, providing an account of the early years of jazz, and expatiating upon New Orleans history, all to the accompaniment of his piano. Jelly does the vocal on all three versions. And here is what he sings:

I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say You nasty, you dirty—take it away
You terrible, you awful—take it away
I thought I heard him say

I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout Open up that window and let that bad air out
Open up that window, and let the foul air out
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say

I thought I heard Judge Fogarty say Thirty days in the market—take him away
Get him a good broom to sweep with—take him away
I thought I heard him say

I thought I heard Frankie Dusen shout Gal, give me that money—I’m gonna beat it out
I mean give me that money, like I explain you, or I’m gonna beat it out
I thought I heard Frankie Dusen say

Several versions:

and via Spotify, versions by Jelly Roll Morton, Aruka Kikuchi, and Hugh Lawrie. And, for good measure, Sidney Bechet Buddy Bolden Stomp

This article by Luc Sante, from Believer (2004), is an excellent summary of the historical significance and musical and linguistic aspects of Bolden’s “Funky Butt”:

Jazz is too large and fluid a category of music to have had a single eureka moment of origin, let alone a sole inventor, but just about everybody agrees that no nameable person was more important to its creation than Buddy Bolden. He was a cornet player, born in 1877, and he got his first band together sometime around 1895. He was known for playing loud—stories of how far his horn could be heard sound like tall tales, but are so numerous there must be something to them—and for playing loose and rowdy. He was by all accounts the first major New Orleans musician to make a virtue of not being able to read a score. You can begin to get an idea of how distinctive his band was from looking at photographs. The traditional-style brass bands of the era wore military-style uniforms, complete with peaked caps, as their parade-band successors do to this day; the getups proclaim unison and discipline, even if the New Orleans version allowed for more latitude than was the rule among the oompah outfits active in every American village of the time. The orchestras—the term was then applied to non-marching musical agglomerations of virtually any size or composition—dressed in mufti, but their sedate poses attest to rigor and sobriety. The John Robichaux Orchestra may have had a big drum, as shown in an 1896 portrait, but its legendarily virtuosic members look as serious as divinity students, and by all accounts they played as sweetly.

Buddy Bolden’s band, on the other hand, is clearly a band, in the sense in which we use the word today. In the only extant photograph, circa 1905, each member has chosen his own stance, with no attempt at homogenization. They all rode in on different trolleys, the picture says, but up on the stage they talk to each other as much as to the audience. Drummer Cornelius Tillman is unaccountably absent. Shy Jimmy Johnson disappears into his bull fiddle. B-flat clarinetist Frank Lewis sits gaunt and upright as a picket. Willie Warner holds his C-clarinet with the kind of delicacy you sometimes see in men with massive hands. Jefferson “Brock” Mumford, the guitarist, looks a bit like circa-1960 Muddy Waters and a bit like he just woke up fully dressed and out of sorts. Willie Cornish shows you his valve trombone as if you had challenged his possession of it. Buddy Bolden rests his weight on his left leg, holds his little horn balanced on one palm, shoulder slumping a bit, and allows a faint smile to take hold of his face. You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside the Three Deuces in 1944, alongside Bird and Diz, and then the smile and the posture would plainly say “reefer.” You could cut him out of the frame and set him down on the sidewalk outside right now, and passing him you would think “significant character, and he knows it, too,” and spend the rest of the day trying to attach a name to the face.

You can’t hear the Bolden band, of course.They may actually have cut a cylinder recording around 1898, but the beeswax surfaces of the time were good for maybe a dozen plays, so it’s hardly surprising that no copy has ever been found.And then Bolden suddenly and dramatically left the picture. In March, 1906, he began complaining of severe headaches, and one day, persuaded that his mother-in-law was trying to poison him, he hit her on the head with a water pitcher. It was the only time in his life that he made the newspapers. His behavior became more erratic, he lost control of his own band, and then he dropped out of that year’s Labor Day parade in midroute—no small matter since the parade was an occasion for strutting that involved nearly every musician in the city. Not long thereafter his family had him committed for dementia. His induction papers cite alcohol poisoning as the cause, but modern scholars suggest it might have been meningitis. In any case he remained incarcerated and incommunicado in the state Insane Asylum at Jackson until his death in 1931, aged fifty-four. He missed the leap of the New Orleans sound to Chicago and beyond, the rise of Louis Armstrong (who, born in 1901, may have remembered hearing Bolden play when he was five), the massive popularity of hot jazz that finally allowed acquaintances and quasi-contemporaries such as Freddie Keppard and Bunk Johnson to record, however fleetingly or belatedly. His name became known outside Louisiana only when white researchers from the North began knocking on doors in the late 1930s. He achieved worldwide fame as a ghost…

But the band needs air. They need to fill their lungs to blow, remember? And the air is this yellow soup with filaments of monkey shit running around in it. So Bolden stands up, slices laterally with his hand, and the music stops, abruptly, right in the middle of the third chorus of “All the Whores Like the Way I Ride.” Then he stomps hard once, twice, three times to get the crowd’s attention. “For God’s sake open up a window!” he bellows. “And take that funky butt away!” The crowd laughs. People look around to see who the goat is or to shift blame away from themselves, as somebody with a pole topped with a brass hook finally pivots open the tall windows. Everybody knows that this will mean noise complaints and then probably a police raid, but nobody leaves. Finally Bolden blows his signature call, and the machine starts up again. Afterward, people straggling home keep hooting, “Take that funky butt away!” For days they shout it in the streets when they’re drunk, or they approach their friends very seriously, as if to convey something of grave significance, then let loose: “Take that funky butt away!” Various Chesters and Lesters in the area become “Funky Butt” for a week or a month, or for the rest of their natural lives. And then the hall, which everybody calls Kinney’s after the head of the Union Sons, starts being referred to as Funky Butt Hall, and the name sticks.

Cut to a week later, to a dance at the Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall, a couple of blocks down on Perdido and South Rampart. In the second part of the set, right after “Mama’s Got a Baby Called Tee-Na-Na,” when everything is getting loose and crazy, Willie Cornish stands up and starts singing: “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say / Funky butt, funky butt, take it away…” There is a silence from the crowd, and then pandemonium. People can’t believe what they’re hearing. It’s as if the band had looked into their minds. And the song is more than a joke. It’s a fully worked-out rag, immediately memorable on its own merits, while the words are irresistibly singable, a banner headline set to music. If there were records available, and people owned record players, storekeepers would not be able to keep copies on their shelves. Within a week or two dockworkers are singing it, and well-dressed young people are whistling it, and barbers are humming it, and drunks are caterwauling it. New verses proliferate. The tune, which instantly calls up the memory of the original words, is annexed by comedians and political campaigners and every sort of cabaret singer. Most of the versions are filthy, some are idle, some topical. For a long time the song goes unrecorded on paper, since even its title is unprintable, until an enterprising—not to say larcenous—ragtime publisher finally copyrights a wordless piano arrangement entitled, for some reason,”St. Louis Tickle.”

For anyone who spent time at the dances and parades of black New Orleans at the very beginning of the century, though, the song will remain Bolden’s monument, his living memory for decades after he is first locked up and then stone-cold dead, as the long line of graybeard interviewees of the earnest young Northern jazz fans knocking on doors from the 1930s to the 1960s will attest. Buddy Bolden wrote other songs, some of them—although attribution is always uncertain—more famous than he ever was, but “Funky Butt” is not merely his song; in alchemical fashion it has replaced the man himself. But no version of the lyrics was set down until an entire generation and then some had gone by….

Morton’s recordings, for all their testamentary aspect and intent, can actually be seen as marking the start of a second life for at least one aspect of the song. Although funk is a versatile word, with secondary denotations of fear and depression and second-order thievery, the phrase funky butt would have clearly signified an odoriferous posterior for at least a century before Bolden famously used the phrase, and in context it can still be so interpreted. In the glossary of hepcat jive that Mezz Mezzrow inserted at the end of his memoir, Really the Blues (1946), funk is defined as “stench,” and funky as “smelly, obnoxious.” In less than a decade, however, the meaning of the word had begun to turn, at least in jazz circles, particularly on the West Coast.The scat singer King Pleasure, backed by Quincy Jones, put out a record called Funk Junction in 1954, and 1957 saw the issue of Creme de Funk by Phil Woods and Gene Quill, and of Funky by Gene Ammons’s All-Stars. In 1958 beatnik fellow-traveler John Clellon Holmes employed funk in a strictly musical sense in his novel The Horn, and not much later the word was being applied favorably to a performance by Miles Davis. By 1964 even the New York Times was throwing it around.

The word was in general currency from the early 1960s on as a musical term signifying some combination of authenticity, earthiness, greasiness, muscularity, perspiration, and the presence of one or more of the following: fuzz-tone bass, hoarse cries produced on the lower register of the tenor sax, a bottom-heavy and high-hat-intensive drum style, and a particularly dirty sound obtainable on the Hammond organ. The turning point came in 1966 when Arlester Christian wrote, and recorded with his band Dyke and the Blazers, the epochal “Funky Broadway,” which was covered and made into a huge hit by Wilson Pickett the following year. The way funky was employed in the lyrics did not refer to music, although it retained many of the cluster of meanings associated with musical use: authenticity, earthiness, greasiness, etc. All of these dove-tailed with and enlarged usefully upon the word’s original olfactory denotation, welcoming the noxious odor and giving it a room and a new suit without actually rehabilitating it. From there it was a short step to Arthur Conley’s “Funky Street” (1968), Rufus Thomas’s “Funky Chicken” (1970), Toots and the Maytals’ “Funky Kingston” (1973), and “Funky Nassau” by the Beginning of the End (1973), among many. James Brown virtually bought the franchise, from “Funk Bomb” (1967) through “Ain’t It Funky,” “Make It Funky,” “Funky Side of Town,” “Funky President,” “Funky Drummer,” and scads more from all quadrants of meaning by a man who spent a year or two calling himself “Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk.” He had no peers atop the funk pyramid, or at least that was the case until George Clinton (of Funkadelic) concocted something like a theology of funk. (One of my proudest possessions is a T-shirt I can’t fit into anymore that is emblazoned with the legend “Take Funk to Heaven in 77.”) Clinton, in full evangelical feather, instituted a principle of spiritual surrender he termed “Giving up the Funk.” This was mana, total communion with the life force manifested as a fried fish.

Funk has climbed down from those heights. It has been devalued by George Michael’s “Too Funky,” and the Eagles’ “Funky New Year,” and “Funky Funky Xmas” by the New Kids on the Block, not to speak of the lingering memory of Grand Funk Railroad. But the word has not been shucked. It is too valuable. It appears in hiphop strictly as a place-marker (the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk,” Too Short’s “Short but Funky,” OutKast’s “Funky Ride,” etc.), but it is a place-marker that will not go away anytime soon. Payments are kept up on the word. Its license is renewed. It is periodically removed from the shelf and dusted off and cradled, occasionally taken for a spin to shake out the knots. The day will come before very long when it is immediately necessary once again, when all of its putative substitutes have been tarnished and made risible, when “ghetto” has been redeveloped and “real” become irredeemably fake—when it will have acquired a previously undreamed-of nuance temporarily undetectable by the white middle-class ear. It awaits a further development of the process set in motion on the rickety stage of some fraternal hall in uptown New Orleans in the year 1902 or thereabouts. It permanently embodies the voice of Buddy Bolden, speaking through a cloud.

So Very American

The Finding Aid for my collections of Nacirema Music is progressing slowly, and lately my ears have been reimmersed in musical genres I haven’t paid much attention to in recent years. One of my ad hoc categories is “So Very American”, containing tunes that just couldn’t have any other source or identity, and that rend the patriot heart. Not that they’re ‘patriotic’, not at all, but they evoke a warm feeling of recognition of shared understanding that might be difficult to explain to auslanders. Here are two that surfaced today in my Spotify Discover Weekly:

Chris Smither No Love Today


No Love Today
Chris Smither

I don’t know much, when I knew less
And I was heartbroke for the first time
I was drowning in my tears
I went looking for a lifeline
Trying to find some comfort
A simple tender touch
Searching for some little cure
That would not cost too much
And I could hear that produce wagon on the street
I could hear that farmer singing
As I cried myself to sleep

I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town
I got okra, enough to choke ya
Beans of every kind
If hungry is what’s eatin’ you
I’ll sell you peace of mind
But this ain’t what you came to hear me say
And I hate to disappoint you
But I got no love today
I got no love today
I got no love today
No love today

I could not love to save myself
From lonesome desperation
Everything I thought was love
Was worthless imitation
My concept of commitment
Was to take all you could give
I thought the cheapest thrills I loved
Were teachin’ me to live
But nothin’ seemed to last or see me through
Nothin’ but that little song
That I still sing for you

I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town
I got okra, enough to choke ya
Beans of every kind
If hungry is what’s eatin’ you
I’ll sell you peace of mind
But this ain’t what you came to hear me say
And I hate to disappoint you
But I got no love today
I got no love today
I got no love today
No love today

No love today, none tomorrow
Not now, not forever
You can’t see what comes for free
I think you much too clever
For your own good I will tell you
What’s right before your eyes
Intelligence is no defense
Against what this implies
In the end no one will sell you what you need
You can’t buy it off the shelf
You got to grow it from the seed

I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town
I got okra, enough to choke ya
Beans of every kind
If hungry is what’s eatin’ you
I’ll sell you peace of mind
But this ain’t what you came to hear me say
And I hate to disappoint you
But I got no love today
I got no love today
I got no love today
No love today


Birds of Chicago American Flowers



I have seen American flowers all across this land
From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men
I have seen American flowers they will bloom again

[Verse 1]
On the Southside of Chicago, a man who’s not yet grown
Went out for a ride but the car was not his own
He did not see the stop sign or the boy on a skateboard
Now he’s lying broken on the ground
Nobody around he coulda, he coulda drove away
But he pulled on over to the curb and he ran out where he lay
Used his hoodie for a pillow said “little man you’re gonna be ok”
And he waited for the ambulance to come

I have seen American flowers all across this land
From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men
I have seen American flowers they will bloom again

[Verse 2]
Tender was the night down in the Tenderloin
In an alley off O’Farrell Street, in the neon glow
Well she finally caught that dragon a mile from Chinatown
She took her wings and eased her body down
She gave a little shudder, but no pain, she felt no pain
And she knew that she was back on home in Morgantown again
She could smell the lady slippers and the wild thimble weeds
“Mama I was just mad, I never meant to leave”

I have seen American flowers all across this land
From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men
I have seen American flowers they will bloom again

[Verse 3]
Layin’ roof in Texas is the job for someone younger
And so is catching fastballs from your Grandson in the summer
But there you are saying “Come on kid, lemme feel that hummer”
With your back and hips and knees on fire
And he says “Come on Grandpa, when you gonna let me throw a curve?”
And you’re looking back at him in the sun and you feel your heart is bursting
Let me keep him from himself and those that mean to hurt him
If that be your will, oh Lord

I have seen American flowers all across this land
From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men
I have seen American flowers they will bloom again

[Verse 4]
Right there off the interstate in Northwest Ohio
In the amber waves of grain and the assemblies of crows
There rose the two twin spires beside a golden dome
The Islamic Mosque of Greater Toledo
I was flying down the highway when it caught my eye
I was sipping red cream soda, I was listening to Johnny Prine
And I saw that golden dome against a pink and purple sky
I was singing “don’t let your baby down”

I have seen American flowers all across this land
From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men
I have seen American flowers they will bloom again


“I” (me, my, etc.) figures prominently in this blog and in the thinking that precedes the construction of an entry. This seems a fact to acknowledge, rather than a failing to expunge or an error to vitiate, and reflects the personal nature of its contents, which emerge as a catalog of mental states and doings and projects, mostly quotidian and only occasionally nudging into territory of the sublime or transcendent. The author is no Bodhisattva:

no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality

as Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz puts it in his Foreword to the Shambhala 1969 version of The Diamond Sutra.

My citation of Minor White’s dictum

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are

(which ended a post that followed a post on the Dude abiding, which itself harked back to discussion of the Convivial question of the previous week…) evinced this response from one of my Convivial interlocutors:

Which raises the question of the “self” if every _______ is a self-portrait. Assuming, of course, that there is a self. Or are there more than one “selves?” Nobody seems to agree on any of these possibilities.

Hm. I thought. Well, I’m a self, conscious of constructing myself over a lifetime, in continuing inner dialog that continues to be constructive, and aware that sometime it will all cease. But meanwhile it’s not an illusion, but rather a performance space in which various plays are enacted, alone and with others. I can be self-critical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-involved… but those are choices made. I can also attend to the broader performances outside my own little theater of the mind, and choose to participate, or not. Choose to display and communicate, or not. Have close alliances with others, or not. Engage with external stimuli and events, or not. That choosing is done from within the wheelhouse of the mind, where attention may be directed as I choose.

And what’s the point of it all? It’s continuously interesting as a story with episodic complexities and pleasures/gratifications. My own performance space is happy, untrammeled, little bothered by slings and arrows of tragedy, suffering, dissatisfaction. In short, felicitous. Just why and how I’m not sure, perhaps more by “luck” and ultimately chance of the initial draw than by any inherent virtue, or any karmic head start.

I am at home in the Sensorium, attentive to Umwelt. The Dude abides.

I can imagine that there might not be “an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” just as I can imagine breathing into my toes, shoulder blades, etc., or that the rocks are peopled. It’s the imagining in which I take refuge.

All of that stuff emerges in the contemporaneous context of reading Madeleine Thien’s Poems Without an ‘I’ in the October 8th issue of NYRB, a review of 3 books on classical Chinese poetry, a subject in which I didn’t know I was interested. She avers that “The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable” (which set off a kerfuffle among linguists) and continues

the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

Hinton notes that the Chinese language is not constructed around “a center of identity”; each time we see an “I” in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text. Chinese grammar—a genderless and verb-tense-less system in which past, present, and future are inferred by context—allows for a complex blurring of subjectivities, which is not just a side effect but a fundamental aspect of the language. In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the “I” is not the nerve center from which thought and knowledge begin.

The whole business of translation has amused me ever since high school Latin, and Thien’s characterization of David Hinton’s approach is elegant:

Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.

So does all this sort out the self/no-self question? Um, no, but it surely puts me on one side of the chasm.

in the parlance of our time

As I recently commented to a friend via email, I’m realizing that I enjoy, indeed revel in, a broad interpretation of ‘folkloric’ which takes in “the parlance of our time” (Lebowski reference) in all its guises.

Among the tools at my fingertips:

…and others re: various dialects of English.

(for more on parlance, see In the parlance of our time and Repetition in The Big Lebowski)

the wind that obliterates

Now and again I discover something on my shelves that I’d forgotten about, or never really assimilated when I acquired it, and Light is Cast upon current concerns in unexpected and even downright magical ways. Today’s case-in-point is a strange and altogether marvelous book with two CDs: steve roden’s …i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces: music in vernacular photographs (1880-1955) (2011). The sort of thing that one acquires sensing its talismanic power and knowing it will never be seen again. The photographs are deliciously chosen and arrayed:

…and the sparse (and all-lower-case) text is incisive. The two CDs contain a very eclectic menu of remastered 78 RPM disks, many of which are new to me, and which complement the photographs brilliantly. And sure enough, YouTube comes through with a tantalizing peek:

But it was a chunk of text that really brought me up short, being a perfect distillation of things I’ve been thinking about collections, collecting, and collectors. Here it is, just as set down, lower-case and all:


if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.

ranier maria rilke
letters to a young poet

of course, i too have sat alone many a night amongst a pile of books, a stack of records or a box of old photographs: conversing, organizing, arranging, connecting, disconnecting and listening to the voices of these inconsiderable things. in such moments i begin to form a world, seeing (or hearing) each thing shift from an individual star towards part of a larger constellation. when new paths between things are revealed, new images are formed, and the relationship of single objects to each other becomes more complex, more overwhelming and less defined.

as long as one is able to interpret and re-interpret the relationship between the objects on the table, the collection remains alive in one’s inmost consciousness, enabling the collector to make deep intuitive connections that leave the intellect to lag marveling behind, a collection should not have to conform to some overbearing logical and finite sense of completion, as much as it should have the potential to exist in a state of flux and evolution, a collection guided by openness is not afraid of imperfection, for an imperfect collection necessitates deeper questions than one which simply attempts to complete a checklist.

certainly one must have determined criteria for addition and inclusion, but th[ose] criteria should also be shifting and changing as old rules are allowed to be broken and new rules are allowed to be born. previously unsought discoveries should have permission to shift things, allowing the collection to be a conversation whose guiding principles can be built up and taken apart in the service of both expansion and contraction (as well as rigor, focus, obsession, passion and vision). building a collection should be a personal endeavor, where value is determined by the gatherer rather than by the marketplace.

the painter arthur dove said that everything an artist makes is a self-portrait, and i tend to think that most collections reflect a similar view. the best collections and the most visionary collectors bring objects together that do not necessarily seem comfortable with each other at first glance, yet upon deeper inspection there seemingly disparate parts reveal a consistency of thought rather than a consistency of form. such cases have the potential to reveal the complex inner workings of the gatherer.


He’s got my number, sure enough. As has Minor White:

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are


This post may be tl;dr for some, but seems a necessary attempt at summary for me, and may be useful to other Convivium participants who might still be puzzling over things I invoked in last week’s bout

Yesterday Betsy asked what did I mean in citing “the Dude abides” in answer to her “no-self” citation of the Diamond Sutra, in the continuing discussion over personal response to the question of how we severally think about The Big Picture. I fumbled an explanation along the lines of Here I am, I’m doing what I do and further cited the Kurt Vonnegut tagline “and so it goes…”. Unsatisfactory, and ever since I’ve been thinking about how to explain more fully.

Here’s how one explicator of the Vonnegut quote puts it: “the inexorable universe doesn’t care one whit about our lives and it’s up to us to make of them what we will… it’s just me and my mind making things up.”

(“And so it goes” appears more than 100 times in Slaughterhouse 5, each a reflection on a death observed.)

My impulse to make light of serious things, to resort to the cynical and sardonic, to voice extreme sentiments that exaggerate what I actually believe … is sometimes baffling and even hurtful to others, or at least confusing. This wants explication.

Perhaps I should be asking: whom do I really Respect and why and how? Kurt Vonnegut would be pretty high on the list, and his Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons would be a primary text, hot stuff from its very first pages and a distillation of his thoughts on self and writings. If you’re not already familiar with the titular terminology, Vonnegut explains:

A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: “Prosperity is just around the corner.” A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings… [a college class, viz. Harvard 1965, would exemplify]

I have a long history of wee-hours pondering, in which I’m awake at 3 AM, thinking in words and phrases that evaporate like dreams unless I arise and write them down. This morning’s iteration was spawned by the “the Dude abides” showstopper from this week’s Convivium—in which I said something that the others found Delphic, impenetrable, completely off the wall… being, as they were, unfamiliar with the allusion to The Big Lebowski, and thus completely at a loss to know what I meant. The 3 AM phrase that got me up and writing was a characterization of my state of mind in alluding to “the Dude abides” as my take on the Big Picture and how to characterize it:

frivolous, flippant, profane

and I soon added ‘transgressive’ to those three.

So now, a few hours later, I’m trying to unpack all of that, explain it to myself and perhaps to others, and make sense of the incident… which will take us pretty far afield, for who knows what constructive purpose.

The Wednesday evening Convivium sessions (these days conducted over Zoom) are, so it seems to me, opportunities for 4-5-6 of us to explore how we see, interrogate, and experience the world… which may not be what my interlocutors think/perceive/wish. Generally they seem to me to be of the Spirit and the spiritual to a greater degree than I think I am. I have a pretty agnostic view of Spirit and spiritual for myself, but am thoroughly willing (I hope, or maybe wish) to cut others slack in their own conceptions and practices.

As I’ve said rather tiresomely, I take refuge in projects and explorations, defined by a lifetime of exploring edges and interstices, of finding the joke and exploring the significance of the preposterous. There: ‘exploring’ 3 times in one sentence. It’s what I do. Why, and whither, and whence I only barely understand. Occasionally I encounter others of similar proclivities, and some of those have been lifelong friends.

For many years (at least since the late 1960s) I’ve considered that I was engaged in Nacirema and Naidanac studies, which specialty is ultimately inspired by Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema (American Anthropologist 1956).

…According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength – the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided…

The documents of this backwater of anthropology include many films that could only be American (there are films that could only be English, or Swedish, or French, etc.—that have contents and characters that simply are not thinkable as American). Translation across cultural boundaries is perilous, as exemplified by [perhaps] well-meaning efforts to translate dialog. Yesterday I watched The Big Lebowski with French subtitles, which obscured about 90% of the humor as it would be appreciated by a native speaker. “Dude” is glossed as “Mec”, for example…

So the immediate problem is to explicate what I see in The Big Lebowski, why I regard it as “one of the best…”, why I’m gobsmacked that everybody doesn’t know it for the cultural icon I believe it to be, and so eventually to arrive at why I cited “the Dude abides” as my own take on elements of The Big Picture. I do have to recognize that some of this is, as we say, non-transitive—it may not be explicable/understandable to others, and my take may reduce in their perception to another example of oook’s frivolous, flippant, profane stance toward the sublime and numinous, toward what really matters. So it goes, to invoke Vonnegut again.

I think a substantial element in my Umwelt (“self-centered world”—a coinage of Jakob von Uexcüll [1909]: “the small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect“) arose from/in California 1956-1961. Just how might be discoverable via introspection, but the details are for another time. The notion that fictional characters in literature, in films, in songs, in visual imagery can encode and express verities is surely at the core of what California taught me in those years, and is obviously the bedrock of the movie industry. The Sam Elliott character who NARRATES The Big Lebowski is obviously a necessary/essential fabrication; and the Dude may be, as Sam Elliott says, “a man for his time and place”… We enter a world of total fantasy, populated by preposterous characters who nonetheless REFLECT realities we recognize as possible, plausible. Walter Sobchak is a Type; Maudie and the Big Lebowski himself and the other goofballs who populate the film are not without some relation to reality. Or Reality. Julianne Moore [Maude Lebowski] puts it thus:

I feel like we all kind of know people like the Dude, or have known people like the Dude in our lives, this whole idea that the Dude abides. He’s always there, always doing his thing. There is something about him that is straightforward and honest, and he is who he is. And he’s hung onto that, you know? He hasn’t been deterred by time changing.
(I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and what have you, pg 40)

It’s the preposterous that makes the film memorable, that captures our attention in every scene. NB other books: The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski, The Dude De Ching: New Annotated Edition, and The Tao of the Dude: Awesome Insights of Deep Dudes from Lao Tzu to Lebowski, all by by Oliver Benjamin…

But would I read the film in that way if I hadn’t been transported from New England sensibilities in 1956, at age 13, and immersed in Southern California for the next 5 years? And if I hadn’t spent another formative 5 years in the Bay Area, 1967-1972?

Convivial Question

Almost the first thing I saw this morning was this poem (via Amanda Palmer, who got it by email from Maria Popova):

by Ellen Bass

I try to look at the big picture.
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted

with her new cub, will wear itself out.
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor

that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period—all those burnt ferns

and reptiles, sharks and bony fish—
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.

And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.

But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,

Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
percent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.

And all the newborn marsupials—
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees— steelhead trout, river dolphins,
all we can save

so many species of frogs
breathing through their
damp permeable membranes.

Today on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed

on her pale shoulder, makes me ache
for those bright flashes in the snow.
And polar bears, the cream and amber

of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,

my son has a headache and, though he’s
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song.
We lie together on the lumpy couch

and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day” . . .
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” . . . A cheap
silver chain shimmers across his throat

rising and falling with his pulse. There never was
anything else. Only these excruciatingly
insignificant creatures we love.


YES, I thought, the Big Picture. Step away from the personal, from the “wee little whimpering…” Ego, from the ephemerality of one’s own existence and Point of View… Imagine the ultimate, try to PICTURE it. Is it OUT there? Is it IN there?

Where does your understanding of the Big Picture find itself?
You may experience proddings that bear somehow upon this Question
but aren’t primarily visual.
You may even be inspired to cast that understanding
into a poem or a pointer to something lately read or seen…

Because I’ve been so engaged with images as we prepare to hang our joint show, my own imagining arrived as a set of photographs (mostly from the last few months) which exemplify my own conceptions of the Big Picture. They await your engagement below.

Shubenacadie sediment














Addendum: my morning notes on those 14 images

Cajun interlude

Listening to the CDs that accompany American Epic, I was brought up short by “La Danseuse” by Delma Lachney & Blind Uncle Gaspard (1929)

I know that tune, I thought… it’s “Jeanine’s Dream” by the Holy Modal Rounders (Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber):

So of course I did a Google search, which landed me with this, from Last Forever’s 2013 album, No Place Like Home:

…and with a blog post from 2009 that I had forgotten (that link is worth clicking for the lyrics to “Jeanine’s Dream”). A bit more digging disclosed that the singer was Sonya Cohen, daughter of New Lost City Ramblers member John Cohen (and niece of Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger). Alas, Sonya died in 2015.

So round and round we go, rediscovering forgotten music and being whirled into explorations of Cajun music. Another that nailed me is Blind Uncle Gaspard’s Sur Le Borde De L’Eau, of which Amanda Petrusich says

Whatever he’s communicating, it’s extra musical. It’s something in the tone of his voice, the way that he’s plays the guitar. It’s extraordinarily sad. When I try to imagine the circumstances that would lead someone to sing this way, it’s devastating.

And here’s Feufollet’s updated version, as full of sadness as the original.



A lot of thought and experimenting has gone into the Finding Aids project lately, and I’m discovering how easily I can be diverted from the grander overall scheme of developing orderly summaries by things encountered along the way. Every Thing that one picks up has edges that potentially link to other Things, and I’m sometimes sidetracked by shiny somethings. A few days ago I started to explore the vastnesses of my American music holdings, and so I’m wrestling with the sliding panoply of genres that belong within “Music of the Nacirema” (blues, jazz, old timey, bluegrass, folk, etc. etc.). Pretty much every item spins out into another Story, a facet (or several) of the glorious complexity of a musical landscape that spans more than a century.

The epic of Stagolee is one such: a tale of Shakespearean scope and perennial fascination, based on an incident that took place in St. Louis in 1896, centered on a shooting over a John B. Stetson hat. There are hundreds of variants since the story was first published in 1911. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians released an instrumental version in 1923, soon followed by Lovie Austin’s version with words in 1924, Ma Rainey’s (with Louis Armstrong’s cornet) in 1925, and Frank Hutchison’s in 1927. See the Wikipedia article for more detail, and enjoy the variety in these examples:

Hogman Maxey, Angola penitentiary, 1959:

Dr. John, 1972

Keb’ Mo’ from the film Honeydripper, 2008

Amy Winehouse, in Brazil 2011

Mikołaj Woubishet Wrocław, 2008

Grateful Dead, NY July 4, 1989

There are many possible readings of the story itself. See Bad-Ass Liberator, Singout!’s sanitized take, and a range of opinions via Mudcat.

Some of the quite different but similarly exemplary tunes that surfaced as I wandered in the Blues world are:

Bertha “Chippie” Hill’s “Pratt City” (Louis Armstrong, cornet) (1926):

Pratt City, is where I was born
Pratt City, is where I was born
If you get to there, you can get your water on

Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream
Get full of high‑powered liquor, it's bound to make him scream
Going back to Pratt City, if it takes nice and mean

You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound

There’s a 1929 version on Spotify:

Pratt City, is where I was born
Pratt City, is where I was born
If you get to there, you can get your water on

Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street
Get full of high‑powered liquor, on eighteenth street
Going back to Pratt City, get sick nice and neat

You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
You walk Sandusky, keep your head hung down
Don't worry hot papa, I'm driftrack bound

Pratt City girls should do treat you right
Pratt City girls should do treat you right
With those Birmingham girls, drink with you day and night

Hogman Maxey’s “Duckin’ and Dodgin'” (1959, recorded by Harry Oster in Angola penitentiary):

Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ “Last Kind Words” (1930):

The last kind words I heard my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say
If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord
If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I p'fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal
I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars
Cried, some train don't come, there'll be some walkin' done
My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don't you be so wild
The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side
What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

…and see The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

Lonnie Johnson’s “To Do This, You Got To Know How”

(see how it’s played by Josh Baum)

Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues”

Went out last night, Had a bad big fight 
Everything seemed to go on wrong
I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone.
Where she went, I don't know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I'm crooked. I didn't know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.
They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
It's true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.

Say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

…and see more backstory

Skip James “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” (original 1931, this version 1967)

Hard times is here and everywhere you go
Times are harder than ever been before
You know that people, they are are driftin' from door to door
But you can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go
People, if I ever can get up off of this old hard killin' floor
Lord, I'll never get down this low no more
When you hear me singin' this old lonesome song
People, you know these hard times can last us so long
You know, you say you had money, you better be sure
Lord, these hard times gon' kill you, just drag on slow

Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” goes around the world:


Radie Peat of the Dublin band Lankum is a powerful singer in a matchless band:

Hares on the Mountain

What Will We Do If We Have No Money

Katie Cruel

Live at WGBH: Wild Rover, Rocky Road to Dublin, Bear Creek

Hunting the Wren

from the comments of viewers:

Wrens were desperate women of Ireland who during the famine had no other way to live besides prostituting themselves to English soldiers. They lived outdoors in literal burrows roofed over with gorse. They clubbed together as a band for protection because they were treated with such derision by everyone else.

Sharp is the wind
Cold is the rain
Harsh is the livelong day
Upon the wide open plain

By Donnelly's hollow
Under sod, gorse and furze
There lies a young wren oh
By the saints she was cursed

The wren is a small bird
How pretty she sings
She bested the eagle
When she hid in its wings

With sticks and with stones
All among the small mounds
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

They flock round the soldiers
In their jackets so red
For barrack room favours
Pennies and bread

The soldier is rough
In anger or fun
And he causes much bloodshed
With his big musket gun
They’re birds of the earth
The beasts of the field
By spite and by fury
Are people revealed

Attacked in the village
Spat on in town
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground

The wren is a small bird
Though blamed for much woe
Her form is derided
Wherever she goes

With cold want and whisky
She soon is run down
Her body paraded
On a staff through the town

Her head for her ceiling
The sod was her floor
She chose the cold open plain 
Cold open plan o'er
The dark workhouse door

With two broken wings
And feathers so brown
They come from all over
To hunt the wren on the wide open ground