Thanks to my friend Harvey Taylor for this link. The film clip is from Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary “The Last Waltz.”
Thanks to my friend Harvey Taylor for this link. The film clip is from Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary “The Last Waltz.”
A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal, Vol. 1
(NOTE: I decided to re-post this blog column because it seems even more pertinent than ever with the current convolutions of the George Zimmerman second -degree murder case.)
This first posting documents an incident that occurred on my train ride back north to Milwaukee from Carbondale. However its timeliness and troubling nature allowed it to rise to the surface).
The black youth settled in beside me on the train and within minutes pulled his hood up and seemed to doze off to the gently numbing rhythms of Amtrak. Glancing at him, I figured he was in his mid-to-late teens and, of course, I thought of the late Trayvon Martin. Sadly, this boyish male was risking profiling and even racist threat by wearing a hood in southern Illinois, not long after Martin had been gunned down in Florida for doing barely more than this tender-faced young man was. Sitting beside him, I could sense his slenderness; his frame virtually swallowed up the loose-hanging top and threadbare jeans.
Nothing about him threatened me, even though I’m aware that some people use hoods to hide their identity, while up to no good.
Yet sure enough, within ten minutes a porter arrived, roused the youth from his slumber and addressed him. By then I was reading and enveloped in the voice-muting hum that makes train transportation comfortingly attractive. The porter said something to him about “this section.” The youth — likely flashing on the sudden demise of his peer Martin — promptly stood up and headed for the rear. All I know is that it was the coach section of the train, which ostensibly has no limitations on passenger access. And yet here was a young black being deported from it. Was it merely the “threat” of his beardless brown face in his hood, and perhaps his jeans, which might’ve been low-slung?
A young woman, who soon replaced the young black man in the seat beside me, was just a scruffily dressed — wearing a faded peace symbol T-shirt and tattered, low-slung jeans– but she was white and female, and nobody disturbed her. So I ended up in pleasant conversation with her, which I might just as well had with young black man.
Melissa Harris-Perry points out in the April 16 issue of The Nation that “sagging pants laws” in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas now attempt “to legislate the public performance of black bodies by making it illegal to enact particular versions of youth fashion associated with blackness.”
I confess that pants hanging so low that the wearer must shamble along with one hand holding his pants up strike me as somewhat absurd fashion. But is it any more ridiculous than women wobbling around on five-inch spike heels — an extreme fashion that never goes out of style? Both fashions virtually disable their wearer’s mobility as a pedestrian. Both the black youth and the high-heeled woman make easy prey for real muggers of any color or even a hole in the sidewalk that slightly trips them up.
Of course, no one — except a few graying, bushy arm-pitted bra burners — seems to object to high heels, a convention codified and sustained by the patriarchal approval of the sexual allure such contrivances provide, even as they’re demonstrably harmful to women’s feet and body, over time. Not to get too self-righteous: My own libido and conscience struggle with the dichotomy.
But what if every Sex in the City babe strutting in spike heels was forced to wear instead clunky Air Jordans and barely upheld jeans? Would we outlaw the jeans? Unthinkable. Leering patriarchs would tacitly approve of the potential peek at plush tush cleavage. So the sagging pants laws present another one of our cultural hypocrisies.
I mean, anyone of any color can put on a hooded sweatshirt and be a devil or a saint, or more likely just another person passing through a chilly day.
I’m embarrassed to be an American again, underneath the great sense of tragedy that I feel for Martin’s family, for all black people and for all Americans. And before indignant flag wavers respond, know that for decades I’ve written about American culture by striving for a strong sense of inquisitive pride in all things the people of this nation produce to justifiably call it great, in ways that have enriched the world in every sense of the word.
But I’m also honest enough to admit my shame when our gun-toting, might-makes-right, testosterone-loaded adolescent mentality raises its ugly head again. This mentality — that gunned down an utterly innocent young boy — demonstrates the immaturity of our culture: that a man like George Zimmerman can build up an obsession that leads to a supposedly “self defense” killing of a teenager toting nothing but candy on a street. Then the laws ostensibly allowed the killer to go free until a national protest arises and we begin to think about how we behave toward black males as The Other in our society. Martin is akin to the Ishmael outcast Melville identified 160 years ago as an American kind of outsider, typically an immigrant, who felt compelled to go to the sea to escape “the damp, drizzly November in my soul.”
Ishmael saw the sea as a means of flight from society and also from what in himself he understood to be Narcissus, because he could not “grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain,” and consequently “plunged into it and was drowned.”
But that same self-image “is the ungraspable phantom of life,” Ishmael concludes, with his redemptive gift for philosophically grappling with the mysteries of existence. He would have us understand that the phantom is a mystery we all share, in our condition of narcissistic self-love, with which the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights give us full rein to pursue — individual freedom and self-assertion and self-betterment. Peoples and nations all over the world have since grown to emulate that American freedom of self-regard and self-assertion.
And yet Ishmael sensed the contradictions in the society that proclaimed freedom for everyone, while not according it to many, so he had to flee to the sea. That’s not so easy for anyone. Ishmael’s story in Moby-Dick shows that whaling was a dangerous, often fatal alternative life. And by the turn-of-the-century, W.E.B. Du Bois identified all blacks as Ishmaels — pointedly seen as societal problems because of their skin color. I suspect DuBois might not be shocked, but he would be profoundly chagrined to know how his racial descendants fare in contemporary America.
Oddly enough, when I began this post by trying to first dictate Trayvon Martin’s name on my Dragon dictation system, the computer wrote “unmarked grave.” It’s as if somehow this young dead man is computed as unworthy of a headstone with his name, or of acknowledgement of his premature death. (For me, reading signals of all types is part of the cultural process). How far have we come since the horrendous murder of young black Emmett Till in 1955, which spurred the modern Civil Rights Movement?
In a way we’ve regressed because Till supposedly “provoked” by talking to a Southern white woman. Zimmerman’s deadly response was codified by our recent laws. We certainly won’t fight another Civil War over the abuse or exploitation of African Americans. Reactionary race-based laws or culture will never again face such heroic and tragic resistance. So our national psyche continues with its long, ingrained racial responses to physical presence, style and imagery.
Each of us needs to deal with this racial response within him or herself. As New York Times columnist Brent Staples commented, “Gun laws that allow a community watch volunteer to run around armed are hardly responsible. But Trayvon Martin was killed by a very old idea that will likely take generations of enormous cultural transformation to dislodge.” 1
(Thar he blows! Another damn Moby-Dick sighting again, straight ahead, port side. Abandon ship or proceed.)
I think back to the two main black characters in Moby-Dick. Pip is an African-American cabin boy and Daggoo is a large African harpooner. Pip signifies the vulnerability of a youth like Martin, when he falls out of a whaling boat and is almost abandoned in a shark-infested sea. A cruel sailor had warned the unsteady Pip he’s not worth losing a whale. The experience leaves poor Pip with what we’d probably call now a post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet even monomaniacal Ahab realizes what this young man has endured and takes him under his wing, with surprising paternal tenderness for the remainder of the fateful voyage.
And the mighty Daggoo is framed as the heroic presence his great physical stature and abilities should command. In a famous scene, the ebony harpooner hoists the diminutive third mate Flask on top of his six foot five-inch frame to allow the mate a better view of whales yonder. Melville (as Ishmael) writes:
“But the sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, noble Negro to every role of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen haired Flask seemed a snowflake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly, vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the Negro’s lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that.” *
Why could an observer like Melville so aptly understand, in turn, the human vulnerability and the human majesty of black males in 1851 — yet in 2012, we flounder in according them their due as members of our same democratic country? If the earth does not “alter her times and her seasons” for any man, why should we?
Apparently we do alter our laws because a young man like Martin is not innocent, as Harris-Perry notes with dripping irony. He is guilty of being a “problem,” that is of “being black in presumably restricted public spaces.”
So Martin’s very public being is indicted, as I suspected my seat partner was, rather than anything they actually did.
This existential travesty, of course, flies in the face of our whole judicial philosophy, that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The black man’s being is inherently guilty; how can he ever claim the right of innocence. we have bounty values on their heads in several different ways. Witness the millions spent on incarcerating blacks often for mere marijuana possession.
Conservative commentators noted that Martin had previously been caught with an empty bag containing traces of pot, among other trivial offenses. Here is another cultural hypocrisy: The drug he may have possessed is one that renders a person mellow and even compliant, unlike the belligerence and dangerous aggressiveness of many people intoxicated by alcohol — the drug our culture embraces with unabashed passion.
Where do we go from here? Surely we seek justice for Trayvon Martin’s needless death. And with justice we find hopefully some clarity about the cruel absurdity of recent sweeping self-defense legislation – like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, or my own state of Wisconsin’s newly imposed “Castle Doctrine” (which recently allowed a man to kill another innocent black youth) — and threaten to shuttle us back to the era of lynching Jim Crow horror.
As Tony Judt has recently noted, echoing Tocqueville from Melville’s era: “The US is more vulnerable to the exploitation of fear for political ends than any other democracy I know.” 2 Judt (a British-born historian) provocatively calls this political demagoguery a “native American fascism.”
Perhaps. Ahab, at his worst, was the archetypal American demagogue in our literature. Yet even he “has his humanities,” as we see above.
Judt sees today’s American “fascism” in right-wing talk show hosts and unapologetic warmongers like Dick Cheney.
Or is it more likely we face our own version of the institutionalized “banality of evil,” which Hannah Arendt warned smug Western society of, during the darkest days of the Third Reich? Surely it is the numbing application of poorly justified laws, as much as fascist fanaticism, that can insidiously infect a democracy that lives in uneasy tension with its legal order.
Today, as vast tides of easily infected electronic info-tainment lull us, true citizens must remain on the lookout for “evil” springing leaks in the American ship (or train?). Otherwise we continue to sink into a democracy waterlogged and infected with cold-blooded, every-man-for-himself survivalism.
We’re still better than that.
— Kevin Lynch
*Moby-Dick Chapter 48 The First Lowering
1. New York Times, op-ed page, April 15, 2012
2. Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, Penguin, 2012, 324.
Levon Helm in his prime. Photo courtesy of stereogum.com
“Listen to this,” Ed said to his hirsute companion. “A guy named Robbie Robertson of a group called simply The Band wrote it. He’s from Canada. But the singer is from Arkansas.”
The singer, Levon Helm, deftly and powerfully massaged a drum beat, as he sang in the voice of the post-war Southern man, Virgil Caine:
“Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel’s stand
Just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet, You can’t raise a Caine up when he’s in defeat.
The night they drove Old Dixie down and all the bells were ringing
The night they drove Old Dixie Down and all the people were singing,
They went, Na, Na, Na-na-na …and a Yankee laid him in his grave.”
“Virgil Caine was his name, and he worked the Danville train,” Melville repeated. “Ah yes, that is strong, deep bitters.”
As Ed’s CD played, horns blared and billowed, evoking both a plaintive dirge and a fanfare in a sequence of heaving choruses. The singer’s Southern accent and impassioned singing seem to be a genuine brother’s lament. The music felt strangely hybrid yet so old and familiar that Ed was not surprised when Melville’s old sailor’s body began softly nodding to the musical waves and the rhythmic verse.
Ed also knew that this song expressed the Southern pain and tragedy that this Northern writer had considered and articulated so deeply in writing Battle Pieces. That against-the-grain poetry and prose collection strove to explore the courage and the brutality of both sides, and to mute the North’s patriotic victor’s pride, to consider the people and culture now defeated and the unfathomable loss, even as the horrendously bloody war would end American chattel slavery and restore the Union called America.
But Ed also sensed that The Band’s brave, fraught song aligned with Melville’s larger philosophic stance — that collective wartime goodness rarely exists without the old sins, like pride and contempt, lurking close behind the victor’s glories, ready to obscure charity and compassion…”The glory of war falls short of its pathos — a pathos which now at last ought to disarm all animosity.”
– From Melville’s Trace or, the Jackal
“Where do we go from here?” is another line from a song by The Band, whose three great singers are gone: Richard Manuel (to suicide), Rick Danko and now Levon Helm, who died April 19, after a long, arduous battle with throat cancer.
The loss may feel palpable from the innards of musically sentient Americans and countless music lovers worldwide.
Perhaps no musical group in the history of pop culture had such three distinctive lead voices — as individual song interpreters and as a two-and-three part harmony as strong and sinewy as a Redwood, as deep and filled with currents of mystery as the Mississippi, and often sounding as alive and as old as those mighty trees and river way.
Yet the simple singularity of the group’s name was born less of self-importance than self-effacement. They’d wanted to call themselves The Crackers, until Capitol Records, their new record label, nixed that. Nevertheless, in time, the unadorned, generic name they chose grew to signify the ultimate and definitive band.
Besides The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (a hit for Joan Baez) the great songs of The Band, -mostly penned by guitarist Robbie Robertson – unfurl in the memory like the exposed underside of America, our history set slightly askew and mythical, yet feeling vividly true: The Weight, Tears Of Rage, Chest Fever, Rag Mama Rag, Unfaithful Servant, It Makes No Difference, Stage Fright, Up on Cripple Creek, When You Awake, Life Is A Carnival, Acadian Driftwood, Ophelia etc, and some stunning covers and collaborations, including Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Nothing was Delivered, This Wheel’s on Fire, and When I Paint My Masterpiece; and 4% Pantomime with Van Morrison, Don’t Do It, Mystery Train…
Acadian Driftwood was the Canadian epic to complement the song about Dixie driven down — this one a heartbreakingly somber saga of displaced ethnic northerners.
Right at the height of the popularity of psychedelic music, The Band had suddenly redefined the possibilities of American vernacular music, in a musical language that almost any American might understand and feel. They laid the groundwork for the magnificently detailed and complex grains of today’s roots music — R&B, rockabilly, blues, gospel, bluegrass and country, melded and ringing, from church steeples to gambling dens, to dusty carnivals and highways.
Most music fans know they did it at first by playing for years with Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, mastering their many instruments and deepening soul on the road. After forming their own band led by Helm, sharp-eared Bob Dylan heard and hired them, as his back-up band after losing the Butterfield Blues Band players who electro-shocked Newport Folk Festival in 1965. The Band reformed on their own terms and produced two instant classic albums, Music from big Pink and The Band, and did one of the first great DIY albums of a new era, The Basement Tapes, recorded in the bowels of their legendary Woodstock house, Big Pink.
The Band’s story would culminate all too soon, it seemed, in their last live performance, a celebration shared with their many gifted musical friends. This ultimate farewell concert was captured brilliantly by Martin Scorsese in the film The Last Waltz in 1976.
Some may know Helm for his credible role as Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Through those transformative music years, Helm — the band’s sole American among four Canadians – provided the deeply Southern authenticity to this greatest of North American bands. The group appeared on the cover of TIME in 1970 and a career climax was perhaps playing at Watkins Glen, NY, in 1973 with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, before 600,000.
It was uncanny that four Canadians could mine, comprehend and interpret the hoary complexities, contradictions and beauties of “Old, Weird America,” as Greil Marcus once put it.
Canadian author Jason Schneider addressed what The Band accomplished as a socio-cultural breakthrough:
“Why should rock-and-roll still be the cause of social divisions? Was it not true that what they and Dylan had been doing to entertain themselves at Big Pink was no different from what generations of North Americans have been doing for hundreds of years? Once this became clear, ideas of conflict between young and old, and unity based on anything other than shared humanity, seemed utterly incomprehensible.” 1
Yet the voices and music emanating from that musical Eden in Woodstock carried shards of all the crazy stuff that fed all those conflicts. Helm played with funk, swing, power and precision, which propelled the group though its many layered scenarios and strange interludes. So the music, deep as it often felt, rarely ever became ponderous.
Arkansan Helm’s singing sometimes had the sharp pitch of a man carrying bales of pain and secret treasures, and then the haunted wail of a coyote at dusk. The mixed metaphor is intentional. He had a skill that seemed wholly, yet beyond, human. This was an unmatched musical genius one could hear and witness as he played and sang at once, like few musicians ever have. He sometimes seemed like a slightly super-human beast of ambidextrous burden.
He also played mandolin on occasion. And he smoked heavily.
Helm’s solo career almost died when throat cancer struck in the late 1990s. His comeback was astonishing and deeply moving to behold, considering the all the 28 radiations and the affliction evident in his singing. Yet he played on, to raise money for his treatments, and produced several wonderful albums including Levon Helm/Ramble at the Ryman, Grammy winner for best Americana album 2011.
A crafty smile always seemed hidden somewhere in Levon Helm’s most anguished expression. He was a shrewd artist of many layers, but the soul’s real deal.
If this reads like a eulogy to The Band, that is because the group’s voices are stilled, even if their two greatest pure musicians — classically trained multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson and the searing guitarist and songwriting master Robertson — remain alive.
But those two provide the majestic backdrop and deep story that will now only be retold in the electronically reborn past of The Band’s indelible legacy.
Despite the bitter tragedies of Virgil Cane’s South and of Acadian Driftwood, the song co-written early on with Dylan, “Tears of Rage,” strives towards pan-generational redemption:
We carry you in our arms/ on Independence Day/ and now you’d throw us all aside/ and put us on our way. / Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun/ would treat a father so/ to wait upon him hand and foot/ and always tell him “No?”/ Tears of rage, tears of grief/ why am I the one who must be the thief?/ Come to me now, you know/ we’re so alone/ and life is brief.
1 Jason Schneider, Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music …from Hank Snow to The Band, ECW Press, 2009, 277.
— Kevin Lynch
I know I risk seeming to stray too far into politics by posting this link, but a cultural writer needs to be aware of how culture and politics intermesh. The way we live (our culture) is profoundly affected by the law makers and law enforcers who enhance — or impinge upon — the way we live. I only offer Ms. Maddow’s thought-provoking and disturbing report. Judge for yourselves.
I’m rootin’ around again today but hey, it’s spring right?
Actually Mr. Bill and Ms. Kitty, proprietors of Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, gone done it again. They have a knack for digging up genuine borderline geniuses for their small corner of the roots music universe, with the creaky stage chair.
Saturday night it was Malcolm Holcombe. Seeing as he’s North Carolina-born, he might’ve evoked something of a historical namesake, one of those original “high, lonesome sound” wailers, Roscoe Holcomb.
And this Holcombe’s got more than a pipeful of hillbilly when he talks. But he’s sharp as a Bowie knife, and he plays more like a mix of Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. He says he listened to the WLS in Chicago as a youth, so he probably got a goodly exposure to the blues.
There are YouTube performances to be found, but none I’ve seen do him justice. In the flesh, Holcombe possesses an almost uncanny blend of brute intensity and backwoods charm. A long shank of hair swaying across from his forehead and the mutton chops give him a hint of Luke the Drifter, a Hank Williams alter ego. But he’s a bona fide troubadour. And when he shakes his head like a dog with something tasty in its jaws, you flash on the demons he admits to grappling with and overcome. He’ll drawl through a few sentences, set laconic pauses. Then his whole body explodes, with a kicker, or a punch line. You realize it’s a punch line when he chuckles and your shock at the outburst fades as you comprehend what he just said. He slyly claims to be “just an average passive-aggressive, vanilla.”
But there’s nothing vanilla about this guy, when you hear him bashing and slashing at his acoustic guitar, but with all the manual dexterity of, say, a master of exquisite hardwood chopping. I’m talking about an eccentric, steely finger-style guitar technique that perfectly mirrors his slingshot/buckshot vocal dynamics. Part of that style includes a way of leaning on a chord change that hoists his rumbling baritone into a lyrical curve.
And the poetry of Holcomb’s lyrics tends to sneak up on you: “Silence is a loan, but nobody owes a dime. We ain’t supposed to last forever, and there’s a lot we ain’t supposed to know. Me, I don’t know nothin’, but my baby loves a slow love song.” I like how the romantic throw-away leavens the philosophizing.
Or : ”I grew up hungry… I left her for the sea… Going to a place made for giving. Your children don’t belong.” That last line seems peculiar, until you realize he’s talking, with terse eloquence, about dying.
You want blues wit? “Those high-heeled women make a fool out of you; they follow you around, and make your socks roll up and down.”
I bet 98% of you never heard of this guy, but the now-proverbial 99% oughta hear him. Hell, the other 1% needs to. But imagining this guy sidling up to a one per-center is like a cottonmouth spiraling round an elephant’s leg. He might toy with the notion, but knows he probably won’t draw blood, though you do think of fangs, sometimes, in his beat-manic moments.
But if Holcomb feels like he’ll lose his hat at any moment, the deep inhale of his music feels like a lifetime fully lived, hard and tender.
His latest album is “To Drink the Rain.” He has a very respectable website at:http://www.malcolmholcombe.com/