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  L I K E  J U D A S  K I S S I N G  F L O W E R S 

by Robert Forryan
 

Smith/Marcus

 

It was an odd serendipity that Paula should mention Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ last month. I have been giving those ghostly musicians a lot of listening-time recently. My interest in the Anthology had been re-primed by an article by Greil Marcus in issue 76 of ‘Granta’ (‘Music’). So it was with some interest and some disbelief that I read the apparent implication by one, Benj DeMott, of a racist undertone to Marcus’s writing about the Anthology.

I should lay my cards down, face-up, at this point and say that I am neither politicallycorrect nor politically conscious. I am apolitical, conservative with a small ‘c’, and probably, therefore, despised by Left and Right. So be it. I should also say that it always seems to me that the advocates of political correctness have a huge capacity for taking offence at the most innocent of statements. So I wouldn’t be very sympathetic to Mr DeMott’s views without real evidence for his claims.

Nevertheless, I was prepared to believe that there might be something in what was being said – something I had missed – and so I returned to the crucial chapter in ‘Invisible Republic’ and I found… well, I found Greil Marcus not guilty of the obnoxious charge. There are a number of pieces of evidence I can offer in his defence. Here is Marcus on Smith’s methods:

“For all of his painstaking annotation, he never identified a performer by race, determinedly sowing a confusion that for some listeners persists to this day. ‘It took years,’ Smith said happily in 1968, ‘before anybody discovered that Mississippi John Hurt wasn’t a hillbilly’.”

I still have no idea whether a number of the performers on the Anthology are black or white. Isn’t the least racist world one in which the question never gets asked? I know that I’m politically naďve, but I do wonder.

In talking about Smithville – the place inhabited by the characters portrayed in the songs – Marcus comments: “It is a small town whose citizens are not distinguishable by race. There are no masters and no slaves”. What does Mr DeMott find to criticise in this? In what way is Marcus being racist? I do not understand.

Apparently Mr DeMott objects to the next chapter in ‘Invisible Republic’ because Marcus’s imaginary ‘Kill Devil Hills’ contain few black folk. Leaving aside the fact that I am not sure that is a true statement, it is worth noting that in this very chapter Marcus comments upon the death toll following black protests in Newark, New Jersey on 11 July 1967. It is not as if he is ignoring the black dimension.

And why is Marcus criticised because he concentrates upon folk songs rather than blues? I actually prefer the folk material anyway – does that make me racist? Are folk fans racist and blues fans PC? We all know that Dylan said: “folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s never been simple, it’s weird…”

Paula talks about “the seedier, and therefore more interesting, parts of downtown Kill Devil Hills”. Well, speaking strictly for me, if I had to choose between a Mississippi Delta juke joint and a Saturday night of fiddle music with hillbillies in the Appalachians, I’d head straight for the mountains and the moonshine. There’s something self-deluding about we of the white middle-class opting, in theory, for the seedier side of life, when in practice we spend our days trying to earn the money to ensure that such places are where we and our families do not end up. It mirrors Irwin Silber’s action in replacing Harry Smith’s cover art for the Anthology with a picture of a starving farmer - as if somehow poverty is ennobling.

What I love most about Harry Smith’s Anthology are those Hillbilly-Appalachian folk songs. They make me feel at home. You see, in a way, I came from the English equivalent of that sort of life. Oh, I was never dirt poor, nor would I wish to be. But my father worked on the land and he would have recognised those hillbillies as his brothers. He had a hard life, my dad. He worked 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including Christmas Day, because livestock need tending to, Christmas or not. In winter he worked a 10-12 hour day; in summer - at haying and harvest – he often worked 15 or 16 hours a day. On top of the regular work there would be crises. From the age of 11 or 12 years I could be woken in the middle of a freezing January night to assist with a ewe who was having complications giving birth. I would go to school with the smell of blood and death in my nostrils (I am not being melodramatic, that is how it was).

From the age of 47 until he had to give it up at the age of 62 my dad worked every day of his life – no holidays, no Sundays off, no rest. In other words, he worked continuously for some 5,475 days, and it was hard, unremittingly physical toil. But he never sought counselling for stress. He wouldn’t have known such a condition existed. This was just life, and life was hard work. In ‘Granta’, Greil Marcus quotes a professor who grew up in the Kentucky mountains, who said of Smith’s Appalachian voices:

“It’s fatalism. It’s powerlessness. It’s the belief that nothing you can do will ever change anything, including singing a song. So… 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”.

It’s the antithesis of what we thought about Dylan’s songs in 1964; and my dad would have understood every word of it. In his article in ‘Granta’, Marcus tells us what an odd realist Harry Smith was. He quotes Smith:

“When I was younger I thought that the feelings that went through me were – that I would outgrow them, that the anxiety or panic or whatever it is called would disappear, but you sort of suspect it at thirty-five, when you get to fifty you definitely know you’re stuck with your neuroses, or whatever you want to classify them as – demons, completed ceremonies, any old damn thing”.

Little wonder, then, that Smith was drawn to the voices of Doc Boggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rabbit Brown, because as Marcus reveals and John Stokes denies, it makes you understand that nothing is impossible, “that the worst is yet to come”.

Harry Smith

 
 
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