Archive for the ‘Greil Marcus’ Category

When the Mask Cracks

September 30, 2014


excerpt from Greil Marcus (

It has proven very difficult for me to access Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. There’s such distance between us and this music that any suspension of disbelief is fragile.  Once submitted to, the Anthology proves to be spellbinding.

To know that some of these songs were recorded in New York in the time of Tin Pan Alley is a fact irreconcilable with what you hear.  Even if the second track by Nelstone’s Hawaiians reminds me of Bing Crosby, this music is a long way from the slick Tin Pan Alley schmaltz that today fills the airwaves of chain bookstores and coffee shops to inspire purchases, by appealing to nostalgia.  Our favorite moments of popular music come when the mask cracks.

In the Anthology, all pretenses are absent, and all guards down, or so you’re led to believe — cause really anyone who knows how to guard themself will know also how to give the impression of being unguarded.  All I know is that no one sings in these strange voices any more.  Like “Le Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme,” which sounds like the sloppy, hilarious way you sing, when you think that no one is listening.  And then there’s Didier Hebert’s “I Woke Up One Morning In May,” which might be sung in French, but for all I know could be sung in tongues.

There’s such a spirit of anything goes to these songs, always teetering from one brink from another, from overflowing joy to callousness.  The opening notes of Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” are such a mix of menace and woe.  And then there’s lyrics like the one in “James Alley Blues,” which goes,

“You’re my daily thought and my nightly dream,

Sometimes I think you’re too sweet to die,

And another time, I think you ought to be buried alive.”


This is music made by people with nowhere to go, but to the grave, whether dead or not.


“Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?”

May 14, 2014


edited excerpt from “Uncle Dave Macon: Agent of Satan?” (in Harry Smith: the Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010):

How do you explain what it’s about-not only to someone who’s never heard Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, never heard of it, but to yourself, especially if you’ve been listening to Smith’s book of spells for years or decades? An answer came right out of the air: ‘Dead presidents,’ I’d say. ‘Dead dogs, dead children, dead lovers, dead murderers, dead heroes, and how good it is to be alive.’

That sounded right the first time it ran through my head; it sounded ridiculously slick after that. I realized I had no idea what Harry Smith’s collection was about. When, in the fall of 2000, I taught a faculty seminar on the Anthology, including what for decades had seemed the apocryphal Volume 4, Smith’s assemblage of mostly Depression-era records, finally released in 2000 on the late John Fahey’s Revenant label, I realized I had no idea what it was.’

An English professor confessed she really couldn’t stand the ‘flatness of the voices’-she meant the Appalachian voices, Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, the Carter Family, G. B. Grayson, Charlie Poole, Lunsford. ‘What’s that about?’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’ ‘Maybe it’s a kind of disinterest,’ a young Musicology professor said. ‘Everybody knows these songs, they’ve heard them all their lives. So they’re bored with them.’ ‘It’s like they don’t care if anyone’s listening or not,’ said the first professor. ‘Maybe that’s what I don’t like. As if we’re not needed.’

‘I don’t think that’s it,’ said a German professor, who, it turned out, had grown up in the Kentucky mountains. ‘It’s fatalism. It’s powerlessness. It’s the belief that nothing you can do will ever change anything, including singing a song. So you’re right, in a way-it doesn’t matter if you’re listening or not. The world won’t be different when the song is over no matter how the song is sung, or how many people hear it.’

‘Uncle Dave Macon isn’t like that,’ someone said of the Grand Ole Opry’s favourite uncle. ‘No, he’s satanic.’

I realized I was completely out of my depth-or that Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music had opened up into a country altogether different from any I’d ever found in it. ‘It’s that “Kill yourself!”’, another person said, picking up on the notion, and quickly it seemed as if everyone in the room saw horns coming out of the head of the kindly old banjo player, saw his buck-dancer’s clogs replaced by cloven hoofs. They were talking about his 1926 ‘Way Down the Old Plank Road’, one of the most celebratory, ecstatic, unburdened shouts America has ever thrown up. Where’s the devil?

‘Kill yourself!’ Uncle Dave Macon yells in the middle of the song, after a verse, taken from ‘The Coo Coo’, about building a scaffold on a mountain just to see the girls pass by, after a commonplace verse about how his wife died on Friday and he got married again on Monday. ‘Kill yourself!’ He meant, it had always seemed obvious to me-well, actually, it was never obvious. He meant when life is this good it can’t get any better so you might as well-kill yourself? Does that follow? Maybe he’s saying nothing more than ‘Scream and shout, knock yourself out,’ ‘Shake it don’t break it,’ or, for that matter, ‘Love conquers all.’

That’s not how he sounds, though. He sounds huge, like some pagan god rising over whatever scene he’s describing, not master of the revels but a judge. ‘Uncle Dave seems much too satisfied about the prospect of apocalypse,’ the agent-of-satan advocate said. Everyone was nodding, and for a moment I heard it too: Uncle Dave Macon wants you dead. I heard what was really satanic about the moment: when Macon says ‘Kill yourself!’ it sounds like a good idea-really fun.

And you can hear the same thing in ‘The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train’, which Harry Smith slotted into Volume 4 of his Anthology. It was 1930, and Macon compressed as much journalistic information as there is in Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ into just over a third of the time, dancing through the financial ruins of his state-the phony bond issue, the collapsed banks, the stolen funds-while crying ‘Follow me, good people, we’re bound for the Promised Land’ over and over. ‘Kill yourself!’-this is what the devil would sound like singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’: correct.

Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson

July 30, 2013
Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson by Greil Marcus

1. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles, Volume One that John Hammond, who tried to recruit Johnson for his 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York before learning of Johnson’s murder, and who played two of Johnson’s 78s from the stage in his place, believed that Johnson had read Whitman. He had.

2. He based “Come on in My Kitchen” on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

3. Traveling with Johnny Shines, Johnson passed through New York in 1937 or 1938—where he appeared in blackface as a spear-carrier in a revue at the relocated Cotton Club at Broadway and 48th Street.

4. Zora Neale Hurston saw him playing on the street in Harlem; she introduced him to Langston Hughes. The three read and sang back and forth until Hughes wrote in his journal, “We all wanted to be each other.”

5. Through Hurston, Johnson met Nancy Cunard, just then getting over her breakup with the jazz bandleader Henry Crowder. They had a brief affair. Stories that Johnson wrote “From Four Until Late” for her are considered dubious.

6. Through Cunard, Johnson met Big Bill Broonzy, and collaborated with him on “Just a Dream (On My Mind),” adding the verse about the president to Broonzy’s structure—

I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shaking my hand, and he said “Bob, I’m so glad you’re here”
But that was just a dream, Lord, what a dream I had on my mind
Now, and when I woke up, baby, not a chair there could I find.

7. Broonzy would not record the song until 1939, when he changed the president’s address from “Bob” to “Bill.” Memphis Slim used to say Broonzy had arranged Johnson’s murder—or even committed it himself—in order to avoid sharing credit for what he knew would become his signature song, but no one believed him.

8. In recent years, various scholars and researchers, determined to remove the veil of mystification thrown over Johnson by the story of his supposedly selling his soul to the devil in order to gain a proficiency on the guitar that would take him beyond his fellows, have sought to restore balance to country-blues studies by both, or alternatively, denying that as a school, style, or aesthetically meaningful form there was any such thing as country blues, and denigrating Johnson’s originality, expressiveness, musical dexterity, or even the authenticity of his putative voice, with one writer arguing that Johnson’s natural voice was deep, but his producer sped up the master tapes of his recordings in order to make him sound younger and more vulnerable, thus purposefully or inadvertently adding to the myth of the doomed blues singer.

A book arguing that Johnson, like Shakespeare, was either a front (for Son House, who, the author suggests, thought he could make more money as a younger, more handsome, more plaintive-sounding version of himself), or never existed at all—the thesis being that the real Robert Johnson who made the recordings attributed to Johnson was, as some have argued about Homer, and as E.L. Doctorow essentially argues about the Rosenbergs at the end of The Book of Daniel, someone else with the same name—will be published next year by Sentinel.

9. Rumored but so-far-unfound Johnson recordings include “Country Blues” (a reworking of the Dock Boggs version), “Little Maggie,” “Adieu False Heart,” and “John Henry.”

10. Like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale listening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as they drew up the charter for the Black Panthers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen were listening to “Hell Hound on My Trail” when in 1941 they wrote “Blues in the Night.” “I want him on the session,” Bing Crosby, a fan of “Terraplane Blues,” said just before he recorded the song in 1942. But what he got was perfect anyway.

Dock Boggs (#5)

March 30, 2013


from “Dock Boggs in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia” by Greil Marcus (Representations, No. 58 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-23):

On a long night in December 1969, troubled by a legal dispute over a cesspool, Dock Boggs suddenly broke out: “I’m going over to the hardware and have them order me a snubnose .38 Special, Smith. The Smith grip. Don’t want to kill nobody but if anybody fool with me, they encountering danger.”

Mike Seeger tried to turn the conversation in a different direction, but Boggs simply turned a corner, and began ruminating over a traffic dispute: “If they hoodoo me too bad, I’m liable to end it pretty quick. If they try to take my driver’s license away from me, and my rights, and my insurance, I may walk in that insurance office and clean it up, clean it out.”

“Don’t do it, Dock,” Mike Seeger said, sounding scared. “Don’t do it.”

“If I do it I’m a dead man, I know,” Boggs said, his words dropping like stones in a lake. “I know my life will be over.”

In 1942 Dock Boggs experienced conversion and joined his wife’s church, the Old Regular Baptists, the fifteen thousand or so self- named “peculiar people” who range from the southwestern part of West Virginia to the Boggs’s patch of Kentucky and Virginia.

Boggs became a community man. In the worst weather, in the worst times, he and others collected food and clothes for those who had none and carried them over bad roads in the dead of night; speaking of it, Boggs broke down weeping at the memory of the misery he served.

In later years, when Boggs returned to his music, members of the Free Pentecostal Holiness Church of God on Guest River, his church then, would send him un- signed letters condemning him for his apostasy.

Invisible Republic

April 25, 2012

“Invisible Republic,” by Greil Marcus (Holt, 1998)


edited excerpt from Greil Marcus’ commentary on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird”:


“Oh, the coo coo, she’s a pretty bird, she wobbles as she flies,

She never hollers cuckoo, ’til the fourth day of July.”

“We Americans are all cuckoos,”  Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872.  “We make our homes in the nests of other birds.”  The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.  Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another’s house, as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters’ names.

If this is the theme of the song, what is present in Clarence Ashley’s performance — the axis on which Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music seems to turn, or maybe the proud anthem of Smithville, sung every night at sundown — is a master narrative of American willfullness and fatedness, a narrative implied but altogether missing, replaced instead buy hints and gestures, code words and winks, a whole music of secret handshakes.

What is Smithville? It is a small town whose citizens are not recognizable by race.  There are no masters and no slaves. The prison population is large, and most are part of it at one time or another. Here, both murders and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend. The town is simultaneously a seamless web of connections and an anarchy of separations:  who would ever shake hands with Dock Boggs, who sounds as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opens his mouth?  And yet who can turn away from the dissatisfaction in his voice, the refusal ever to be satisfied with the things of this world or the promises of the next?

This is Smithville.  It’s limbo, but it’s not bad; on the fourth day of July you get to holler.

Clarence Ashley