Category Archives: Nacirema


One of New England’s Autumn rituals is the Binding of the Evergreens. A bolt of [gunny] sack cloth or burlap or tow sackin’ or hessian (dialect variants for pretty much the same very rough cloth, almost loose enough to qualify as net) is sourced from somewhere (Tractor Supply, maybe?) and wrapped around ornamental evergreens for the first 5 or 6 years after they are planted. One must wonder why (not to mention where and when and wither and how) this custom came to be and to spread to its present territory?

And of the style and other niceties of the Binding: The most common configuration is the line, which often looks nothing but military:


The ideal is a uniformity that is rarely achieved. Most straggle and sag and some even wander. Some manage to stand in a line as if on parade:


(most of these can be read as faces…)

With Evergreens planted as specimen trees, there’s more latitude for the fanciful when it comes to Binding. It’s not clear if the Binders consider that they might be doing Evergreen Sculpture, or if the main point is to ward off hungry winter-browsing deer, and you get the burlap around her good enough…

Remarkable characters sometimes emerge:


hawk-nosed portrait head with extravagant plumed headdress


I can’t decide between genuflection and a couch too deep


Exercise: caption this as you will

Some are marvelous portraits of character. I read this one as disgruntled old sergeant with silly tufted headgear.


Longtime I’ve thought of these as Hessians, a tip o’ the hat to the 18th century Germans with whom the Crown sought to maintain order in 1770s North America. Others collected can be seen in my Hessians Flickr Album.

My friend Brian Higley, landscape architect and vegetation whisperer, comments thusly:

I like to call these, trees in bondage. Whenever I see them, they look pretty tortured to me. But maybe the more creative way to see them is perhaps… homage to the landscape artist Christo. See the forms without any preconceptions, only for what they are as sculpture. What happens to the flora when you wrap it? … The wrappings can actually serve a purpose in some cases, but those cases included, it usually means that someone has planted the wrong species of plant in the wrong location, or deer.

Some species of evergreen trees and shrubs are extremely sensitive to wind and can become dessicated in the winter. If the winter wind doesn’t kill them, they will stay nice and brown the rest of the year. Wrapping can keep them alive and perhaps green.

Heavy pressures from a starving deer population (the case in several places I have worked) can make it next to impossible to have any new plantings without a seven foot deer fence around your entire property. Many people with money do just that, and then the remaining deer have that much less land to feed on. When they are starving they will eat anything in sight, including things they aren’t even supposed to like. Some people like to wrap up their plants in winter to protect from the hungry deer, a reasonable protective measure by tree loving owners, but in my view the dressed up soldiers stand out as a loud and obvious symbol of defeat. Really? looking at wrapped up trees all winter? I get it though. Falling in love with your trees can be as irrational as falling in love with another person.

Now if you live in Beacon, New York and you happen to get a nice little fig tree, and you wrap it all up and bury it in the fall to keep it from getting too cold, you can get some nice figs every year — it is totally worth the trouble. And the ugliness you have forced upon the plant, and the rest of the world, is justified.

photos keep surfacing

Organizing stuff in the barn always means finding things of Significance that have been hiding for years. Some of them connect to stories and Stories.

This one ended 60 years ago. The tall person was David Lyon, my Chadwick roommate in 1958-59, after which he went to Paris for two years (long story there), before returning to Chadwick for his senior year, which was my first year at Harvard. He’d just been accepted to Harvard himself when he died in a car accident. The old people in the photo are Commander and Mrs. Chadwick, the grandparents of the three at the back and great aunt/uncle to the rest. Mrs. C. was a huge presence in my Chadwick life.

Margaret and Joe Chadwick with grandchildren and grandniblings

Here we see Betsy’s sister Caroline and her first husband Steve Butterfield, in 1973. Shame it’s not color — Steve’s hair was a magnificent red. He worked for Bolt, Beranek, and Newman when the internet was being born, and was the first person we ever saw use email. When we were at Stanford in the 1979-1980 sabbatical, Steve was at Xerox PARC. He gave me a tour of the Future just when the personal computer was being invented…

Caroline and Steve 1973

Broot took this one in summer 1963, the young guitarist clipping fingernails.

HAB 1963

And this is Larry Fredericks, taken sometime in the 1980s. He was a colleague/friend in the first few years at Acadia, an enthusiastic member of CPC/M-L (Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist). He had a marvelous International Harvester Scout, red in colour, which at one point he traded in for a bronze-hued Impala with electric windows. He took me for a ride on the Big Road, getting it up to 90 or so, and zipped the windows up and down… I said “Lar, what you got here is a Bronze Pig”. He thought that characterization was funny until I wrote a rather mocking song about it. I learned the power of music and lost a friend… but then one day maybe 10 years later he turned up… he was doing something in banking or was it stock-broking in Toronto, and had rented the white Cadillac convertible at the airport.

Larry Fredericks

Obscure Sorrows

John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows arrived earlier in the week, and I’ve been enjoying it bit by bit. Here’s an entry that seems to fit with the ambient querilosity of the present moment:

LUMUS: the poignant humanness beneath the spectacle of society

Your culture never really leaves you. Its rhythms are encoded in your heartbeat, its music embedded in the sound of your voice. Its images make up the raw material of your wildest dreams, your deepest fears, even your attempts to rebel against it. So it’s hard not to get swept up in the spectacle of it all, absorbing its stories and values and symbols until you no longer question their importance. It’s as if there’s a circus wheeling around you all the time, so overwhelming that you keep forgetting it’s there.

But there are still moments when you manage to tune out the fanfare—taking time in nature, in solitude, or in some other culture entirely—getting away long enough so that when you return to normal life again, you’re able to look around with fresh eyes, and see how abnormal it really is.

You take in all the scenes and sideshows happening around you. It doesn’t quite feel like reality anymore, more like the worldbuilding of a fantasy novel. You have no idea who came up with this stuff, but you can’t help but be impressed by their tireless dedication to fleshing out even the most mundane details. The vaunted marble halls of politics and business and religion and the arts, each buttressed by its own rules and standards and practices, booming with the echoes of a billion conversations that everyone seems to take so very seriously. Rituals of status and fashion, the mythology of the markets, pop-culture think pieces, and waves upon waves of breaking news. You wonder how you ever managed to get so invested, following all these stock characters, and all their little dramas and debates. Who said what to whom? What does it all mean? What will happen next?

You’re struck by how arbitrary and provisional it all feels. Though it has the weight of reality, you know it could just as easily have been something else. You realize that all of our big ideas and sacred institutions were designed and built by ordinary human beings, soft-bellied mammals, who shiver when they’re cold, dance around when they have to pee, and lash out when they feel powerless. So much of our culture exists because someone was hungry once, someone was bored, someone was afraid, someone wanted to impress a mate, prove something wrong, or leave their kids a better life.

The circus is so big and bright and loud, it’s easy to believe that there’s the real world and you live somewhere outside it. But beneath all these constructed ideals, there is a darker heart of normalcy, a humble humanness, that powers the whole thing. We’re all just people. We go to work and play our roles as best we can, spinning our tales and performing our tricks, but then we take off our makeup and go home, where we carry on with our real lives. None of us really knows what is happening, what we’re doing, where we’re going, or why. Still we carry on, doing what we can to get through it. Even the roar of the city can sometimes feel like a cry for help.

Inevitably, within a few days or weeks at most, you’ll find yourself getting swept right back into the big show, even though you know it’s all just an act. That’s perhaps the most amazing thing about a society: even if none of us fully believes in it, we’re all willing to come together and pretend we do, doing our part to hold up the tent. If only so we can shut out the darkness for a little while, and offer each other the luxury of thinking that little things matter a great deal.

We know it’s all so silly and meaningless, and yet we’re still here, holding our breath together, waiting to see what happens next. And tomorrow, we’ll put ourselves out there and do it all again. The show must go on.

[Latin lumen, light, brightness + humus, a particularly rich and dark component of soil,
made of decayed organic matter]

If I was teaching Intro Anthropology, or Advanced Anthropology either too, I might use this passage as the Kickoff.

Earnest & Bogus enter the Time Warp

This bit of brilliance arrived a few days ago: Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017. The Amazon précis:

This 3 CD reissue anthology is the first to track twentieth century American vernacular music of old time country, bluegrass, jazz and blues by tracing their beginnings in 19th century blackface minstrelsy and Tin Pan Alley.

Country Music is a genre driven by songwriting and publishing. This fact alone has given opportunity for songs to be refashioned again and again showcasing stylistic as well as lyrical changes over the past 100 years. The foundation of the American popular songbook traces its beginnings to the Vaudeville, Circus, Minstrel, Music Hall and Theater stages of the mid-late 1800s. The songs spread throughout the country and world creating a new musical tapestry that included both black and white performers of all backgrounds. Their songs and styles are presented in this three CD anthology.

By aligning performances from the earliest cylinder recordings with later 78 rpm, LP and CD versions, PROTOBILLY brings to life 81 historic recordings, more than half never before reissued…

Assembled by collectors and music scholars Henry Sapoznik, Dick Spottswood, David Giovannoni, and Dom Flemmons, this wowed me from the first cuts. I hadn’t realized that those Edison cylinders (and other brands too) had any relevance to the music recorded in the 78 era, or that the material captured in cylinder recordings had itself a considerable pedigree in sheet music and mid-19th century stage performance. Dom Flemmons puts it beautifully:

…songwriters, black and white, performed in the streets, theaters, music halls, medicine shows and circuses of a budding America reimagining the American Dream through song. The songs reflected and exaggerated the social climate of the world at that time. Like the internet memes of the digital era, Tin Pan Alley was not limited to unapologetically featuring songs that included ethnic humor lampooning working class people whether they be Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, African-American or Asian-American for the amusement of a paying audience. But it would be blackface minstrelsy, the songs that lampooned African-American experience, that would reach worldwide fame much to the chagrin of modern culture…

Black songsters pull songs of black buffoonery inside out and create humorous toasts of black ingenuity and excellency. Rural hillbilly singers take Broadway harmonies and give them the “high lonesome sound” of the Southern Mountains…

Here’s an example from Protobilly: The Arkansas Traveler seems to be datable as music and text from the 1850s, and was popularized on the vaudeville stage by Mose Case from the 1850s to 1880. There was a piano roll version by 1900, credited to Case. Here are three versions from Protobilly: Len Spencer (Edison cylinder 1902), Jilson Setters (Victor 78RPM 1928), and Clayton McMitchen & His Georgia Wildcats (Crown 78RPM 1932). And here’s a New Lost City Ramblers rendition:

The cylinder recordings I’ve heard before were so scratchy-noisy as to be almost unlistenable. The examples in the Protobilly compilation have been cleaned up beautifully, and I’m inspired to (re-)explore MAC’s (Michael Cumella) Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU, which has 23 years of archived programs (see list of artists played in those 23 years). MAC uses antique disk players, so you get a sense of how the original technology sounded to early 20th century ears.

Try this one: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me (Esther Walker, 1919)
Spotify offers at least 100 variants of the song. Here are two:
Kweskin Jug Band and Sidney Bechet.

MAC did programs of cylinder recordings as well, with guest collectors. Try this one for a good introduction to cylinder technology (broadcast date April 15, 2003):

Earnest and Bogus’s Big Adventure part 3

(some necessary background, with links and illustrative videos)

“Hm.” I remember thinking. “Need to provide entrée to the collectors who found, preserved, annotated, packaged, released, and loved this music. And to the venues and mass media outlets that brought it to broader publics…” and the more I look into the background, the more stuff I find to explore and include, so more searches get done, more stuff gets ordered and read and heard. Case in point:

Just flew in through the transom: The Harry Smith B-Sides (“the flip side of 78-rpm records that Harry Smith included on the Anthology of American Folk Music”).

Who needs this? Certainly the music-obsessed, those who have grown up with the Anthology (1952, reissued on CDs 2007… and download !!liner notes!!) and its sequelæ Anthology Of American Folk Music Volume 4 (Revenant Records 2000) and The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology Of American Folk Music Revisited (2006), and the lucky few who followed gadaya’s labor of love MY OLD WEIRD AMERICA An exploration of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music blog when it was alive for downloads of the Variations.

The B-Sides are fully as revelatory as the 84 cuts on the original Anthology:

a mirror image of the Anthology… a way to hear the complete statement of each 78RPM disc… as they were originally released in the 1920s and 1930s…

Most people interested by the Smith Anthology will agree that it stands as an esoteric beacon outside the whole dysfunctional culture system. Just like when it was first issued in 1952, you still won’t hear the music of the Smith Anthology on the radio, on TV or on the front pages of the internet…

By releasing his Anthology to the audience of Folkways Records, Harry Smith dropped an extraordinary rural working class culture bomb on a New York City world of artists, bohemians, radicals, and city musicians… (Eli Smith, B-Sides liner notes)

A New York Times story on the B-Sides: How to Handle the Hate in America’s Musical Heritage


The 1927 Bristol recording sessions (the Big Bang of country music) captured 76 songs, recorded by 19 performers or performing groups, including the Carter Family.

The saga of recording Black musicians in the 1920s was somewhat more haphazard. There was a booking agency for the Black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA, referred to by Ma Rainey as ‘Tough On Black Asses’) that dealt with jazz, comedians, dancers and (mostly female) blues acts (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith). Country blues artists were mostly too small-time and local for TOBA, and were recorded in studios outside the South (e.g., “Paramount Records, based in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, who also made phonographs…”) but the musicians were recruited by

“field scouts” [used] to seek out new talent, though this is a somewhat grand name for men the likes of HC Speir, who ran stores in the South and simply kept an eye out for local musicians. Through Speir they recorded Tommy Johnson and, most importantly, Charley Patton. It was Patton that took Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to Paramount’s new studios in Grafton WI in 1930.

Several record companies had catalogs of “Race Records” made for a specifically Black rural public, and it is these disks that were rescued by record collectors in the 1960s.

Thinking about mass media and Nacirema musics, one of the constants for most of the last century has been Grand Ole Opry, which was first broadcast from Nashville in 1925 and came to blanket the rural South with versions of aural and, eventually with TV, visual imagery of regional culture. Separating the authentic and vital from the stereotyped and bogus is challenging, and just how accurate and inclusive the picture was/is/can be argued endlessly. The intrusions of commercial elements are everywhere, and might as well be acknowledged while we hunt for whatever purity they blanket. Resort complexes like Opryland USA and Dollywood and Branson MO and Graceland have drawn crowds seeking ‘authentic’ experiences, and have provided income for entertainers.

The cultural complexity of the Showcase experience is exemplified by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), who was a lawyer, performer, researcher, field collector, impresario, and tyrant for the cause of what he spoke of as “mountain music.” His Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville NC (first in 1928) was the paradigm for many other folk festivals.

Lunsford himself despised the commercialism and cultural nonsense he saw in Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival, and opposed the stereotyping of mountain folk as backward and ignorant. Still, as a performer he could produce material as bogus as Good Old Mountain Dew

A documentary on Lunsford, This Appalachian Music Man Lived A Beautiful Life, in which Alan Lomax shows up:

and David Hoffman’s Bluegrass Roots 1965 was filmed in a mountain tour conducted by Lunsford:


John (1867-1948) and Alan (1915-2002) Lomax are giants in the history of discovering and recording Nacirema music in the field. A site from the Musical Geography Project offers maps of Lomax travels. John Szwed’s biography of Alan Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is excellent, and Duchazeau’s Lomax: Collectors of Folk Songs is a charming graphic-novel portrayal of a 1933 Lomax collecting foray into the South. Among the interesting videos on Alan Lomax:

Cultural Equity has a vast collection of Alan Lomax field materials


Wikipedia lists more than 50 American folk song collectors, and American Folklife Center has a page of women collectors, including Frances Densmore (1867-1957), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (1891-1978).


Mike Seeger’s fieldwork in Appalachia brought Dock Boggs (1898-1971) to modern audiences and covered a wide range of southern styles of music and dance. Just Around The Bend: Survival & Revival in Southern Banjo Sounds was his last documentary film, and there are several documentary CDs and DVDs: Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection, 1952-1967, Mike Seeger Early Southern Guitar Styles, Early Southern Guitar Sounds, Southern Banjo Styles #1 Clawhammer Varieties & more, Southern Banjo Styles #2-Early 2- and 3-Finger Picking, Southern Banjo Sounds, besides his work with the New Lost City Ramblers, his sister Peggy, and various other musicians.


Art Rosenbaum’s Art of Field Recording (1 and 2) (available via Dust to Digital) offers a wealth of field recordings made 1959-2010.


Record collectors inhabit a separate documentary world, well described in Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records.

…an intense, competitive, and insular subculture with its own rules and economics—an oddball fraternity of men (and they are almost always men) obsessed with an outmoded technology and the aural rewards it could offer them. Because 78s are remarkably fragile and were sometimes produced in very limited quantities, they’re a finite resource, and the amount of time and effort required to find the coveted ones is astonishing. The maniacal pursuit of rare shellac seemed like an epic treasure hunt, a quest story—an elaburate, multipronged search for a prize that may or may not even exist. (pg. 4)

Among collectors of 78s, Joe Bussard stands out as a National Treasure. A Fretboard Journal profile introduces his rather unique personality:

Joe Bussard has an interesting theory: Musical forms seem to lose their value when the electric bass is introduced. “That goddamn electric bass ruined everything!” he shouts. “I went to Trashville—I mean Nashville—in ’57 to see the Opry, and I asked for my money back, I’ll tell you that right now. They didn’t have shit I wanted to hear. Garbage! When rock come in, I didn’t have any interest in anything that damn dumb! Elvis and all that bullshit! I already knew better than to fall for that, buncha goddam shit for retarded 4-year-old kids!”

but its essence is best appreciated in videos:

Joe has been very open-handed with his collection, making tapes for people and contributing to a vast array of compilations. There’s a video Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music that I’d love to get my hands on. Looks like I had it in 2007 from Netflix, and I’ve requested it again.

Besides his Fonotone Records recording business which ran for a decade or so and lately produced a remarkable compilation

Massive 5CD set of American Primitive music unearthed for the first time (in various styles: Jug Band, Country, Old Time, Blues and Bluegrass), recorded and documented by Joe Bussard’s 78-RPM Fonotone label, 1956-1969 — not one track previously on CD before. Incredible package featuring 131 tracks over 5 discs, 160-page perfect-bound book, 17 full-color postcards, 3 record label reproductions in souvenir folder and a nickel-plated Fonotone Records bottle opener(!) — all packaged in a deluxe cigar box.

Joe Bussard recorded the young John Fahey in 1959-1960.

John Fahey deserves mention under Collectors for his part in the rediscovery of Bukka White and Skip James (both of whom had made mighty 78s in the 1920s), described in detail in Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, and for the research he did on Charley Patton, and other Revenant Records collections American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) and American Primitive Vol . 2 – Pre-War Revenants (1897 – 1939).

Fahey’s life was a trainwreck, with occasional bright interludes, and is perhaps best discussed under Guitar Heroes.


The fraternity of collectors is nicely documented via Mainspring Press (“Information and Resources for Historic-Sound Enthusiasts”, including Discographies). Their blogroll provides links to Excavated Shellac (mostly concerned with non-US sources) and Sound of the Hound (“dedicated to the story of how recording came into being and how it conquered the world”). See also Amanda Petrusich on John Heneghan and The Great 78 Project at the Internet Archive.

Some collectors have specialized in “ethnic” 78s (a whole other subset of my musical world), including Dick Spottswood (who grew up near John Fahey) and Ian Nagoski (of Canary Records and Fonotopia) and Karl Signell. See also 78rpm Collector’s Community (“a social network for collectors of 78rpms recordings, phonographs, memorabilia, recording machines and the history of the 78 rpm recording era”)

Experiments with recording at 78 RPM include American Epic (and accompanying CD and book).

Earnest and Bogus’s Grand Adventure, part 2

(continuing semi-coherent explorations of Nacirema music holdings)
(and surfacing topics to be expanded anon)
(but barely scratching the surface)

Here’s a list I made for myself of issues to explore:

  • the “real folk” and the Tradition
  • authenticity and interpretation
  • versions and versioning
  • collectors, researchers, profit seekers
  • commercialization
  • the True Vine
  • appropriation
  • the place of folklore scholarship

To begin with the last of those, I reopened a file folder of notes and documents from summer 1991, when I spent a couple of months looking into issues of librarianship and access in the world of academic Folklore studies. I also hunted up some books on Folklore that I’d acquired then (Dundes 1965, Dorson 1972, Brunvand 1978), but found them unappealing and pretty much irrelevant to my Nacirema musics Finding Aid, since academic Folklore seems uninterested in the commercial world that produced the shellac and vinyl and digital documents, and ditto in the earnest efforts of non-“folk” musicians to study and then extend the works of early 20th century progenitors. Far more useful than the academic texts are liner notes from albums and books by non-academic enthusiasts who are free of the carapace of academic disciplines. There’s still plenty of contentious territory—John Fahey’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life represents that well.

It’s worthwhile to look into the work of 19th and early 20th century ballad scholars (Francis James Child and George Lyman Kittredge, Harvard professors of Rhetoric and English who sparked interest in texts and comparison), the songcatcher collectors (Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, a few others), and the extra-academic road warriors (the Lomaxes père et fils most notably) who went out to record the “folk” in the 1930s. These were especially effective creators and anaysts of the body of work that the folk revivalists of the 1960s drew upon. Alan Lomax (as a fieldworker) and Moe Asch (as promulgator) laid the foundations; Harry Smith, Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger understood the potential locked away in all those 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. And a ragged band of collectors went out searching for revenant 78s and so eventually provided the feedstock for reissue compilations. In some cases they also found the still-living musicians who had made the records. Folk festivals and college tours acted as fuel for a boom in interest that also spawned coffee houses and record deals for performers.

A few LPs ignited the smouldering tinder. Joan Baez’s first album (1960) was one such for many people, and “Silver Dagger” pinioned (maybe even created) a whole generation of folkies:

The Wikipedia article on the song puts the Baez version into context: one of many variants, not a Child Ballad (though several on the Baez album were), and covering the same territory of love-and-death that runs wide and deep in folk and popular musics. Deja Morgana’s summary is helpful, and even Thomas Merton was bewitched:

“All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,'” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself—and yourself for me, in a way.”

(it’s worth thinking about other albums that had similar watershed effect)

Fascination with particular instruments is another vein in the deep mine of the folk revival. The distinctive sound of the plucked string (guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin…) and the powerful magnet of virtuosity (how does he/she DO that?) fueled the (largely unexamined) mania for playing that afflicts a small proportion of those who are attracted to this music. This minority is the feedstock of woodshedders and performers and instrument collectors whose obsessions underpin the vast edifice of tunes and drive the evolution of the various genres of popular music. And evolution there is, and has always been. For such folks, periodicals like Fretboard Journal and the now-defunct Mandolin World News (1978-1985) are tailor-made, and bits of lore like Ry Cooder’s instruments and David Lindley’s instruments are eye candy, the Stuff of which Dreams are made.

The life stories of the personalities in these musical worlds are a perennial fascination: how did they first become musicians, who and what influenced their development, with whom have they played, what demons have they wrestled with… A few examples:

and the interwebs are replete with interviews with and profiles of heroes: David Grisman: Acousticity And Other Dawg Dreams and Bela Fleck are two nice examples.

Turning a passion for music into a viable career is perilous, and it’s has been true for the last century at least that life “on the road” is the lot of most who try to make a living from music: festivals, concerts in a string of cities, occasional tv and radio appearances, maybe recordings. Many also eke a living from session and sideperson work with recording studios. Austin City Limits, the NPR Tiny Desk miniconcerts, and personal YouTube channels are relatively new venues for performers, designed to reach wide audiences, but most “folk” musicians live pretty much hand-to-mouth. Needed here, and probably the subject of the next post in the series, is consideration of mass media (radio, TV, YouTube…), festivals and concert venues, and the infrastructure of the recording industry (A&R, studios, record labels)—stuff I know is important in the overall story, and missing pieces in the context of the Nacirema musics in my collections. Only a few of these are part of my experience, but they’re things I need to learn about as mise-en-scène for the music I experience by ear.

Meanwhile, a few videos of some of my own musical heroes:

Norman Blake:

John Hartford (1937-2001)
Master of Ceremonies for the inaugural Ryman Auditorium performance of “Down From The Mountain”, an absolute must-see concert film.

The Earnest and the Bogus: Of “Folk Revival”

(the beginning of a thread that will probably continue)

I was brought up short today by Alex Abramovich’s “Even When It’s a Big Fat Lie” in LRB, a review of Ken Burns’ Country Music, when I realized that I had been blithely ignoring the counterfeit nostalgia and encoded racism that clings to (or is perhaps at the core of) the genre. Music does carry multiple messages, serves various purposes, and is heard and interpreted in multifarious ways by different audiences and at different times. None of that should surprise—it’s just what Culture does, and there are cognate issues of the Dark Underbelly in Blues, in Rock’n’Roll, in the the various worlds of jazz, in “folk music” generally, and in High Culture musics too. There’s plenty of opportunity to descry the Emperor’s Clothes at work, and to call out various -isms on display, if that’s where one’s interests bloom.

My paths into these issues were via genres that might sustain the labels “ethnic” and “folk” and that partook of the early-1960s Harvard Square ferment so well documented in Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney’s Baby Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good: The Folk Revival broadens the focus, and Scott Alarik’s Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground kicks out the jambs with a collection of 10 years of articles from The Boston Globe, which also ventures into English and Irish folk realms. Another dozen or so books on specific performers and groups clamor for inclusion in this canon, and may find their way in as we proceed.

There are essential compilations of music, like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and its sequelæ and (most recently) American Epic (also a PBS video series). And scores of others, CD and vinyl, on my shelves. These are revenants of commercial 78RPM records from the 1920s and 1930s, remastered and alive again. Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records is a fine introduction to the world of collectors, whose essence is skewered by R. Crumb (who is one of Them himself…):

Capturing the essence and visceral meaning of folk demands attack on multiple fronts, and John Szwed’s Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is one port of entry.

…Alan’s public influence reached its peak between 1940 and 1960, when he was the single greatest force in bringing folksongs to American awareness… At times his influence can be seen in the distortions of the funhouse mirror of American culture, where a hard-fought idea can be perverted through the countervailing forces of social and technological interests and the discourse of fashion…

To those who knew Alan’s work only from his songbooks he seemed to be the pied piper of the folk, a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times.But he might have thought of himself as spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always come to life in troubled times… those who could evoke deep fears of their resentment and unpredictability. At such times folk songs seemed not so much charming souvenirs as ominous and threatening portents. (pp 390-391; 3)

Robert Cantwell reflects on the experience of my own age cohort, we who were born during World War II:

…I remembered lovely Joan Baez, with her dark eyes and hair, her delicate shoulders, warbling to the plinking accompaniment of her guitar some British ballad in a voice somberly and exquisitely pure; images of Bob Dylan, the real inventor of punk, brazen, wasted, outrageous, excoriating racists and warmongers and capitalists in the drawling, swearing, muttering, doggerel-ridden songs we adored, and in the elliptic, visionary, lyrical ones that remade our world, but most of all felt again the defiant spirit in which we listened to them and the sense of strength and indomitability they gave us. (pg 15)

What wants explanation for me, and I trust to many of my readers, is the seven-year period between the release of the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with an electric guitar and a blues band. These are artificial but not arbitrary points; by general agreement they mark the boundaries between which a longstanding folksong movement, with elaborate political and social affiliations, emerged out of relative obscurity to become an immensely popular commercial fad, only to be swallowed up by a rock-and-roll revolution whose origins, ironically, it shared. (pp 20-21)

[I] declare that folksong, whether high or low, old or new, traditional or original, survived or revived, refects the deepest and most persistent of human dreams, and marks the human face and human habitat with their power. Often it is poetically subtle and precise, melodically and harmonically striking and fresh, elegant formally and structurally sturdy and ingenious, in performance a source of lasting inspiration and intense joy. Within its basic simplicity there is, in execution especially, a complexity that will always defy analysis. (pg 44)

The tunes I still attempt to play, the recordings that moved me, this or that unforgettable performance, have assumed over time nearly the status of persons—like brothers or sisters, perhaps, in whom one inevitably catches the old family resemblance, with whom one can always become reacquainted, in whom time collapses in upon itself, and yet who must finally remain independent, other, unconquerable. We cannot, finally, abandon them—for as surely as we must relinquish our youth, so must we honor and sustain the life force that is the gift of youth. As in any youth movement, what drove the folk revival was sheer erotic magnetism and beauty, idealism and aspiration, personal, social, and political striving, forces that, perhaps more than any other art, music is capable of communicating. (pp 45-46)

And von Schmidt and Rooney capture the feeling in the Cambridge air at the start of the 1960s:

Listening to music and trying to play and sing a few songs started to become more important than whatever was going on in school. For some it became a passion that started to smoulder inside. It was at this point that certain individuals made a difference. Some were teachers, some were organizers, some were sources of energy, instigators, and others were simply talented, musically gifted.

So, where no scene had existed before, one came into being. What had been smouldering before burst into flames. Jan Baez was the most prominent member of a group whose numbers were growing daily, as were their abilities as musicians and performers. More important still was the fact that there was an audience for this music. People wanted to hear it. It filled some need that we all shared in common before we ever knew what it was. Whatever plans we might have had before were to be totally changed. (from the Foreword)

Quintessential for me has been the New Lost City Ramblers: Mike Seeger, John Cohen, Tom Paley (replaced in 1963 by Tracy Schwarz). The Early Years 1958-1962 is a good introduction, and the liner notes are an essential accompaniment. An extract:

The New Lost City Ramblers will leave barely a blip in the history of the entertainment business, as they predicted in their jokes about their “long-playing, short-selling” albums on the Folkways label. But they have nevertheless earned the touch of immortality for their central role in our discovery of the folkloristic riches preserved electronically in the early years of our century. As individual performers, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen had during the 1950s become interested in performance style in American folk music, exactly that dimension of the music which recordings uniquely capture. In 1958 they formed The New Lost City Ramblers with the explicit intention of performing American folk music as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies, and television had begun to homogenize our diverse regional folkways.

They studied and learned from commercial 78 rpm discs of “hillbilly” musicians recorded in what has come to be called the Golden Age (1923–1940), from blues and “race” records of the same era, from the bluegrass recordings of the post-war period, from the field recordings on deposit in the Library of Congress. In turn, they began their own field trips to seek out and record and learn the music of older rural musicians who still played and sang in the old way. Over the next twenty years, the Ramblers poured forth a steady stream of their own performances live and recorded, albums of their field recordings, and festival performances and workshops in which they introduced musicians they had met in the South to urban audiences of the folk song revival of the 1960s. Their lasting influence was greatest upon a relatively small but important part of that urban audience—those few who wanted not only to study the music seriously, but who also wanted to learn to play the music themselves, actually to be the heirs of a musically rich American culture which by the 1960s largely existed only in the scratchy echoes found on primitive recordings, and in the memories of an ever-fewer number of elders.

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


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?