The Curtains of Night

•October 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Just returned from double-headed Philadelphia art-world shenanigans revolving around James Castle, a PMA retrospective, and a Felsiher/Ollman show. I wrote essays for both, and I got to thinking about the advantages of shorter pieces, and ones about friends. The Curtains of Night are my friends. They just released a new record called Lost Houses, and I wrote this about it.


When the curtains of night are pinned back by the stars… (The Carter Family)

Then what? An aperture opens, and we see through the transom of night into something blacker, less star-spun, another night somehow twice removed? The opening line sets a stagy scene that doesn’t make much dimensional sense, but then, neither does the impossible depth of the night sky. Stargazing poses the inscrutable question of scale, which is also the fundamental question of heavy metal music. The Curtains of Night, a guitar and drums duo from the North Carolina Piedmont, take their name from the eponymous cosmic Carter Family song. But they earn their telescopic sense of scale from more terrestrial concerns, a dismantling of heavy metal’s macho  mythology and a distillation of the form’s traditional bloat to the leanest architecture of pummeling rhythm and patiently unfolding riff.

The living forest is behind glass, the fauna moth-eaten.
(The Curtains of Night)

The magnitude of their sound, and its miniature origins in the focused dialogue between two musicians, trumps biography. Here’s what you need to know: the music committed to this debut disc was written and performed by two women, Nora and Lauren. That swelling, seismic guitar tone was constructed as well as conjured from the instrument––Nora built her own amp, a bespoke creature with vacuum tubes like sprouting mushrooms. Onstage it assumes a third presence and a personality; on record its spinal drone serves as a clarion call heralding the onslaught of Lauren’s colossal drumming and as a ubiquitous connective tissue that binds and buttresses the songs. The open tunings and spiraling guitar lines betray the banjos Nora also makes and plays outside the Curtains, and the keening banshee dread of her vocals, behind its metallic veneer, may owe something to the grim fire of mountain music. But if it’s the South we think we hear, Lauren further confounds cartography and scale with Lost Houses’ woozy interludes, which migrate to distant sonic spaces amid the atmospheric clatter and funereal chug of subterranean drums.

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. (William Blake)

No ghoulish horror-film theatrics here, either. “Total Domination” delivers exactly what it posits. At once thuggish and elegant, brutal and sexy, earthbound and phantasmagoric, Lost Houses rejects testicular metal’s face-paint pagan clowning as well as its porny Argento and Alucarda axis of female evil. The Curtains’ avatars live elsewhere, in anonymous heroines who “sleep in armor,” armed to the teeth; in the anxious residents of “ice palaces” and “stagnant seas”; in the tangled wood and in the overripe soil. Listen closely, and loudly––these six dreams dilate and contract, as dreams do, revealing the Lovecraftian landscapes beneath the snarling storm. “Gather the horses,” indeed.

– Brendan Greaves, Chapel Hill, October 2008

“The Tangled Wood”
by Velimir Khlebnikov

Panting horses always closer
Branching antlers always lower
Twangling bowstrings over and over
Nor hart nor help, from hurt and hazard.

A herd of horses shod with Hours
Jangling like thunder, wheel in a field.
Their rugged bodies are rank with Time,
Their flashing eyes ablaze with Days.



•October 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

An essay for Fleisher/Ollman Gallery’s exhibition of memory jugs.


I’m going back home to Georgia in a jug
By Brendan Greaves
Philadelphia, December 27th, 2007

Some additional text by William Pym
Words and images copyright the authors and Fleisher/Ollman Gallery

I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug.
– Johnny Paycheck

Side One. “Or thinke this ragged bony name to bee/ My ruinous Anatomie”: worried words from John Donne, 17th-century metaphysical poet and graffiti artist. Here he has etched his “scratch’d name” on a “through-shine” window, in valediction to a lover. With inscription, names last a little longer, and so may we. (Or so we may fool ourselves.) But the closer we look, the more our written words melt away into reedy––or for Donne, skeletal––obscurity. Stare on, and those strange shapes might start to swim. What do the snarled skeins on this page––or on Donne’s glass––really signify, if anything? The lined-out letters may seem familiar, ordered in some abstruse, threadbare sense, but how and why do they hold sway over the things, people, and places named? Might we figure our memories––of ourselves, of others, of those pristine, transmogrified moments that memory marks as different, discrete, our own––without clumsy words or deceptive photographs? Frustrated writers and photographers are not alone, I think, in seeking other modes of remembering, modes beyond the pale reach of literacy’s tyranny and photography’s overripe ambiguities.

Flip the record to Side Two. “Georgia in a Jug,” as performed by Mr. Johnny Paycheck. Give us a song, Johnny, and a strong drink too. Vault that honeyed voice higher and spin us a witty elegy from a shitty memory––for what else is a good country song?––and then plug that memory up in an old whiskey jug. Stopper yourself up in there too while you’re at it, genie-like, since that one lousy memory feels like all you’ve got, and head on home alone. A cork can keep it contained. But without memory, Johnny, what are we? And what is the opposite of memory, anyway? Oblivion? Lies? History, in its subjective, selective collectivity? Forgettery? (My friend Pablo prefers the simple “forget,” an aptly awkward immobilization of the verb into a noun.) We lack the proper word for that lack (at least in English), and also the proper means to stave it off or seal it up, whatever it’s called. So we make do with other things.

Memory jugs raise more questions than they answer. Their enigmatic presence in our homes, in the gallery or museum, or (possibly) in our cemeteries complicates without offering any tidy conclusions. Maybe meditation is more fruitful than undue speculation. First, the facts. The term “Memory jugs” is a convenient shorthand for a range of mosaic-collaged objects––not just jugs, but containers of all sorts: bottles, boxes (cigar and otherwise), vases, pots, teapots, kettles, urns, pitchers, plates, glasses, jars, lamps, salt shakers, picture frames, mirrors, dollhouses, and even clocks (containers for time.) Makers, almost all of whom remain anonymous, cover a vessel in putty or a similar substance, pushing objects of remembrance, possessions and symbols alike, into the putty. Perhaps these objects––a favorite pipe, a clutch of seashells, marbles, ceramic figurines, keys––commemorate their dearly departed owner, as oral tradition maintains. Perhaps they commemorate the artist herself, her own vision of beauty or self-identity. Most likely, both scenarios ring true.

What we’ve got here is a domestic tradition, long-lived, persistent, and mysterious. It’s a tradition largely unknown and unmapped despite, or perhaps because of, its deep embeddedness within the vernacular imagination and the everyday remembering of things and people past. Memory jugs provide evidence of the ordinary practice of mnemonic rehearsal and assemblage, as yanked into tangible, and tangled, three-dimensionality. They are, in fact, mnemonic devices, humble and homegrown answers to Duchamp’s notion of “delay” (which he trapped in glass rather than in a ceramic jug.) So many personal(ized) memory objects assembled together in the context of this exhibition constitute a kind of choir, a polyphony of contained memories in conversation and contestation. The tradition itself appears to be a polyphonic one as well, a syncretic form embraced by Americans of diverse backgrounds and communities for as long as two centuries.

Many scholars, collectors, and curious pickers have pointed toward a potential relationship with West and Central African funerary practice, suggesting that memory jugs represent a possible transmutation in African American diasporic tradition. Kongo mortuary customs in particular (as described by Robert Ferris Thompson, John Vlach, and others) provide an interesting antecedent to some African American grave decoration. Broken pottery and other objects symbolizing the watery river-realm of death––mirrors, conch shells, gourds, et al.––adorned the graves of the Kongo dead. During funerary rites in Haiti, Vodou faithful pass the po-tèt, the “head” pot or jug containing a deceased person’s soul (and often their hair and fingernail clippings), through fire to warm and cleanse it in preparation for its journey beyond the waters. The ritual is known as boule-zen. During the early 20th century, in the rural American South especially––where of course, African American populations were largest during much of this country’s vexed history––white folks sometimes mistook African American grave sites for middens, so scattered and layered were they with busted crockery and other household goods (including, significantly, seashells.) Might portable memory jugs represent a similar practice on a smaller, less diffuse and site-specific scale? In a word, maybe. But grave decoration or burial with items of sentimental or economic value is hardly unique to African or African diasporic tradition, even in the Americas. Certain ancient Southwestern Native American tribes commonly placed pots with knocked-out bottoms––so-called “kill holes”––over corpses’ faces. White communities with strong pottery traditions, such as those in North Carolina, also have used ceramic vessels as grave markers. For some professional potters, perhaps clay was a more affordable and metaphorically apposite material than stone. Honoring the dead with tokens of their livelihood or material symbols of respect for their tracks in this world is a grieving expression belonging to no one group—it’s a  pan-cultural gesture of mourning. You can’t take it with you, all your clay. The link to African American funerary traditions fascinates, but without any proof––for instance, reliable documentation of memory jugs placed on graves––any robust articulation to African diasporic funerary ritual smacks of an overdetermined attribution.

The reality probably lies in hybridity, as is so often the case with widespread artifacts of material culture. Traces of 19th century European American cultural activity can tell us just as much about memory jugs as invoking spectral African ancestors. The production of memory jugs is not limited to African Americans, and there are indications that the tradition was remarkably prevalent. Folklorist Glenn Hinson recalls making a memory jug as a child as an elementary school assignment, and indeed, the practice is largely associated with women and children. Memory jugs are, after all, just three-dimensional collages, a useful pedagogical tool. It’s not unlikely that many works presumed to be commemorative funerary objects are in fact the work of children or hobbyist housewives, not shamans, priests, or even the bereaved. The polite roots of Euro-American modernist collage––beyond Picasso and Braque’s papiers collés (“stuck papers”)––may be found in Victorian parlors. Ladies of leisure collected ephemera and souvenirs like calling cards, advertisements, and pictures, arranging them in scrapbook “albums,” diaristic compilations that both marked the passage of days and concretized identity through amassing memories (literally, “mementos.”) We can locate male equivalents too, like the cigar band collage fad of the late 19th and early 20th century. These vernacular and domestic artistic traditions of appropriation informed revolutionary modernist reconfigurations; sometimes extrapolated vernacular traditions even paralleled or penetrated modernist aesthetic realms in a recognizable form. Over the past centuries, multiple waves of modernities have swelled across the American landscape, catalyzing vernacular modernisms that rival and reflect the capital-M textbook variety, and vice versa. Collage, the master practice within which we can locate memory jugs, is a major mode of American vernacular modernism.

Demanding steadfast, lucid origins for our multivalent expressive culture is an understandable urge, but that innocent curiosity can lead to vanity or essentialism. We needn’t always seek ultimate causal primacy and purity or explain our everyday artifacts as vestigial, fossilized remains of fuller expressions locked away by miles and millennia. We can call––or curse––the tradition of making memory jugs “folk” or “vernacular” or “bricolage” or whatever, but that’s evading and segregating the accumulative act itself, the actual process of pressing into putty, the footprints of remembering. Maybe the salient question is not what memory jugs mean, but how they mean. The impulse to memorialize and commemorate is close with us, ingrown. We carry words into the grave. We engrave stones in memoriam, solidifying the gauzy screen of memory on silent slabs in hushed fields and gardens. We hold bones in ossuaries, ashes in urns on mantles. Forget, for a moment, the Kongo graveyard and the Victorian parlor––you need only to drive into North Philly to see poignant assemblages of stuffed animals and toys commemorating the site of a child’s death, often by violence. When tragedy strikes, on a private or public scale, the lonesome and left-behind manage to gather the jetsam surrounding their loved ones in life to construct improvisatory memorials; who can forget the impromptu collaged memorials in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina? In Manhattan, near St. Vincent’s Hospital, there’s still a vast tile collage to the World Trade Center on a chain-link fence; it’s ceramic, and now crumbling. The mute eloquence of trinkets, bric-a-brac, and things that sparkle are audible above the ugly din of jingoist fury. This collective collecting urge may echo a function of modernity, but it probably long predates anything we can discuss in those lumbering terms.

So too is it with memory jugs, metonymic accumulations of things chosen to represent identity and time, much like Victorian albums and African American gravesite ornamentation. The objects are presumably selected according to both aesthetics and affect. Memory jugs are loosely defined, but densely constructed; they accrue meaning, they mean, through affective accumulation around an empty core. In a perverse cloaking of the ceramic aim itself, the hard-won smoothness of form and consistency of glaze, the artist culls small remembered objects from the garage, the bureau, the coffee table, to cover an open vessel. Memories veil that emptiness like lava, literally damming the void of forget if stoppered or sealed, as they often are. The vessel designed for transporting and delivering liquid is thereby rendered functionless through aestheticization––that’s one (Western, modern) definition of art––like those Native American and African pots, smashed or defaced, usually through the base, to prevent theft and to break the chain of death. The accreted surface becomes caked and encrusted with sedimented memories, coming to resemble barnacles or coral. Sometimes the artist will gild the entire vessel in a patina of paint, obscuring the discrete memory-elements combined to create the whole. (On the topic of coral, gold, and eternity, Carolina Beach salvage diver Skippy Winner claims that there are only two substances that sea life will never grown on or cling to: gold and porcelain. Practically, this means that treasure and latrines are easy to spot in a wreck.) The completed memory jug, at once scarred and adorned with lumpen strata of memories, is transformed into a mini-history, a micro-geology. It offers an inverse archeology, a meta-excavation readymade for a lazy dig, a superficial probing into the past––someone else’s past––no pail or spade necessary. The visitor, or the new owner, can anatomize the very work of remembering.

The tides and fashions of the glossy capitalistic art world are gravitating towards these aesthetics of archaeology. Recent artists have openly incorporated relics of the past in their completed works, from Jim Lambie’s disco cockney tongue, to Cerith Wyn Evans’ plush, library-like scholarship of history, to Dieter Roth’s messy living archives, Cady Noland’s Americana milled from the material of American innovation, and of course Richard Prince, the Grand Puba of this line of thinking. Stylized, ersatz historiography is a hot topic in art criticism, art production, and art collecting. The inherited and refurbished value of much of today’s cutting-edge sculpture, conglomerate objects of appropriated antique history, seems directly descended from the kind of potential energy that memory jugs bear. Gilles Deleuze spoke of a charged field of relationships, with the compositional elements arranged in a position bursting with possibility, and called this dynamism ‘intensity.’ This potential energy remains of the highest interest to contemporary artists.

Today memory jugs survive for sale on the American art and antiques market and on the Internet as well; deliberately aged “fakes” coexist with antiques and instructions on how to make your own jug. You can purchase someone else’s heritage, their memories, for a decent price, or you can manufacture your own. But the strange beauty in homely banality still bewitches, especially in those pieces never intended as commodities. The now traditional, historicized association with death, even if clouded in myth and exaggeration, persists and enchants. Young artists, my friends included, reach into the cluttered rabbit hole of our American pasts for contemporary relevance. A jug can hold many things other than drink, as Mr. Paycheck well knew. It can be a vessel for travel back home, or for memory itself, or commemoration. Many of us are, evidently, looking for a way back home, a way to gather together the broken branches of our “ruinous Anatomie.”

The Big Money

•October 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

I wrote this overview of occupational folklore a month or two ago in conversation with folklorist and big man Archie Green. It will appear soon in a truncated version in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.


“Occupational Folklife”

by Brendan Greaves, in conversation with Archie Green

Muscles ache for the knowledge of jobs, for the roadmender’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook when he hauls on the slithery net from the rail of the lurching trawler, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmer’s use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow… One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough.  – John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1938)

We all work. Whether by necessity, compulsion, or choice; whether predominantly physical, intellectual, emotional, or even virtual; whether payrolled, privileged by communal compensation, or outside the purview of dominant political economies, labor––broadly defined––is a precondition for survival, an essential category of both private and social behavior. Such is the human condition, whether we live in thrall to a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers, a communist bloc politburo, or the privatized markets of advanced finance capitalism. In work––an activity and a context that consumes vast tracts of our time and attention, ornately shaping our political consciousness––culture thrives. Such is the assumption that drives the study of occupational folklife (alternately known as “laborlore.”)
We can characterize “occupational folklife” as a contextual net for catching and analyzing ideas about work and culture, not in terms of political economy exclusively, but likewise at a more intimate scale, in terms of what actually happens on a daily basis between working people and their materials, utterances, and actions. The venues for these expressive forms and exchanges are innumerable, both historical and emergent: in the cotton field or in the fish camp; on the shop floor or ship deck; in factory, laboratory, or gallery; in the union hall and on the picket line; deep in cubicle, kitchen, or coalmine; riding high in truck cab, cockpit, or office armchair; in the studio and onstage; on the street corner or in the state penitentiary; in the boardroom, classroom, courtroom, or hospital operating room; facing the fickle glow of audience, computer monitor, welding torch, forest fire, or dwarf star. Any jobsite represents a site of cultural condensations articulated to work, a nexus of overlapping and telescoping milieus, charged fields of social, economic, artistic, and political action.  Occupational folklife encompasses all the expressive culture that radiates from the workplace in concentric circles––extending from onsite job processes, techniques, materials, verbal art, and common knowledge and experience through sartorial styles, housing conditions, unionism, reform movements, political tactics, and other behaviors, values, and objects that may range far afield of the primary work environment (see Green 1972.) Even in an age of breathless global market territorialization, local cultural and ecological variables still determine much about the species, sites, and styles of work; in the American South, for instance, farming families fight to survive alongside multinational corporations.
As we wander through the many worlds of workers, we discover a map of multivalent meanings made of labor and its lack. In work, we encounter a tangle of cultural forms and formations specific to each occupation, an enacted knot of shared belief, tradition, ritual, speech, song, literature, humor, material culture, performance, and politics. However, not all threads of this knot are constructive or affirmative. In work, in its dignity and degradation, its naked economic and political dimensions, we also encounter an often esoteric psychological and physical world of authority, betrayal, anxiety, pride, shame, surveillance, secrecy, solidarity, skill, and artistry. Cultural negotiations of tradition and innovation, affinity and rejection, acquiescence and resistance, collectivity and individuation, and affect and identity exist as immanent within the economic base itself, not just as some theoretical superstructural spire suspended above the grit of our daily grind (Green 2001.) Occupational folklife entails an abstract suite of elusive tensions and collaborative relations as well as the more tangible slang, songs, or artifacts.
Cultural and economic production interpenetrate in the repetitive rhythms of work, which ripple through our individual and collective identities and ideologies. Those identities may be overdetermined or imposed, like socioeconomic class, or volitional, like the dolly grip’s delight in her chosen profession. Deeply ingrained power relations compass the cartographer’s efforts to track the culture of work over time. After all, most of us are employed by others, whom we might respect or resent (sometimes in turn.) All the prismatic facets of workers’ worldviews and expressive practices are coded according to the vectors of power, whether managerial, gendered, ethnic, racial, classed, or pushed by political party or faith. Wedded to production is the inexorable potential for injustice, oppression, and violence. Work offers both freedom from and imprisonment within hegemonic strictures, access to both communal and contested spaces.

The disciplinary history of occupational folklife research reveals this layered potentiality of work culture. Since it is a nearly universally shared modality, we can consider work as a node––perhaps the preeminent node—of the vernacular, the everyday, the folk. Because of that very fixity in everydayness, labor can accrue a patina of banality, both for the worker and the observer. (But beneath that banality blooms a distinctive, often obscure culture.) As such, many researchers and historians have taken occupational folklife for granted, especially when linked to the labor of modernity, the non-exotic, largely mechanized and bureaucratic-managerial labor of the industrial and postindustrial West. Folklorists have historically defined “the folk” according to class, labor, or occupation––and in opposition to modernity––without always acknowledging the Marxian or post-Marxian implications of that slippery, spectral designation of imagined authenticity. Labor historians and cultural studies scholars, like E.P. Thompson in his influential The Making of the English Working Class (1963), have brilliantly documented sweeping labor-capital struggles at the macrocosmic level, but the often overlooked, ingrown details of daily lived reality also inform broader processes of change and class consciousness. A critical mass of expressive culture––protest songs, pickets, and bloggers’ petitions, for example—might act as a catalyst for securing workers’ rights, clearing fresh paths to equity.
Let us take a few moments here at the trailhead to examine the genealogy of the idiom “occupational folklife,” which suffers from derivations and cultural inflections that result from its awkward marriage of terms.  Although occupational folklife enjoys a certain currency in history, anthropology, sociology, communications studies, cultural studies, American studies, and other disciplines, the term is most closely identified with folkloristics and folklorists, who concern themselves most fully with “folklife,” the accumulation of everyday expressive culture, from breakfast food to funeral rites. But the central problematic of definitional scope has never been adequately answered––how should we define “occupational”? Generously, as in the entire range of human labor, from panhandling to presidency, or narrowly, as wage-earning and salaried jobs with a strong group dimension and an oral tradition? Although initially mired in outdated notions of authentically preindustrial, premodern labor, pioneering researchers have since prized open occupational folklife to allow an expansion of scope beyond the blue-collar, embracing the emergent, the industrial and deindustrialized, the high-tech, and the bourgeois and governmental. Central to this refocus was Dan Ben-Amos’s influential definition of folklore as “artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos 1971). After a few centuries of exploring the frontiers of American worklife, both under the rubric of folklore or otherwise, American thinkers finally unloosed occupational folklife from traditional, agrarian, and craft-based occupations and a preoccupation with music––“John Henry” is of course probably the most famous example of American occupational folksong––toward new horizons.
Although early European examples provide academic precedent––Friedrich Friese documented artisans’ customs in Germany as early as 1705, and William Morris celebrated art as work and work as art during the English Arts and Crafts Movement––the first surveys of coherent, collected occupational folklife in the United States occur in literature, especially fiction and memoirs. Rhapsodizing about work and workers is a trope of American letters in which Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and William James all indulged, and in fact the reader might be most familiar with famous fictionalized and vernacular, rather than academic and folkloristic, accounts of occupational folklife. Sometimes the two strains work in dialogue. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the most famous of many devastating slave narratives and autobiographies, details the cruelty and horror of the most pernicious form of American labor; folklorist Roger Abrahams later commented on the subversive function of slave corn-shucking songs. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) explores sperm whaling on technical, historical, and metaphysical levels; folklorist Horace Beck later tackled similar cetacean subjects (William Warner and David Cecelski have also written fascinating studies of Southern maritime folklife.) Other examples abound. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) recounts the author’s symbolic escape from market economies into a life of nominal subsistence living; The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854) exposes some of the “Prince of the Humbug”’s deceptions and triumphs as calculated business ventures; Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872) satirizes a young Twain’s peripatetic search for work and his comic failures as a silver miner and journalist, while his Life on the Mississippi (1883) celebrates steamboat captains and roustabouts; John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1938) employs modernist textual methods to examine the prewar history of American unionism and the way disparate work experiences forge human consciousness.
The first American folklorists to delve into the culture of workers tended to concentrate on documenting the regional folkways of those professions they perceived as endangered by technology, urbanization, or other socioeconomic shifts. John Lomax’s collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) remains a bellwether, but it excludes even the modest analysis and contextual detail of later efforts like Fannie Eckstorm and Mary Smyth’s Minstrelsy of Maine (1927), which covers the songs of lumberjacks and shanty boys. Beginning with his Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miner (1927), George Korson made a crucial contribution to the field, championing the industrial worker as a skilled artisan and tradition bearer. Still, he abandoned his work with miners once he felt mechanization had entirely superseded the twilight era of human-scale mining. The Depression and the WPA nurtured several South-centered American folklorists with an occupational bent, some of whom embraced social activism and public folklore initiatives as a means of supporting their consultants. Benjamin Botkin, director of the Federal Writers’ Project, sought to topple some of the hierarchies of tradition, collectivity, and authenticity that bridled folklorists; by insisting in the name of cultural pluralism that the modern, the industrial, and the political join the folkloristic discussion, he edged occupational folklife (he coined the term “industrial folklore”) into popular consciousness and toward the Popular Front. In his Palmetto Country (1942), Stetson Kennedy limned the lives of Floridian laborers of all stripes and colors, from Cuban American cigarmakers to Greek spongers to Conch (Key West) fishermen to railroad gandy-dancers; along with Zora Neale Hurston, he also honored the ordeals of African American turpentiners. John Greenway published the exhaustive American Folksongs of Protest in 1953, painting the history of occupational folksong with an explicitly political tinge. Mody Boatright and Américo Paredes furnished two divergent perspectives on Texan work culture—the former through an ethnography of oil workers and cowboys in Texas, the latter explicating Gregorio Cortez, the hero of a tejano border corrido, as a working-class symbol of ethnic and socioeconomic resistance to the marauding Texas Rangers. Similarly, Manuel Peña has examined the tejano conjunto as a musical form specifically articulated to Mexican American working-class identity.
Important occupational folklife research projects and subjects are myriad, but certain influential statements bear some scrutiny. Wayland Hand’s 1969 essay and call-to-arms “American Occupational and Industrial Folklore: The Miner” prefigured Only a Miner (1972), Archie Green’s seminal study of recorded mining songs and their complex web of vernacular, popular, and commercial cultural contexts. An erstwhile shipwright and union activist, Green coined the term “laborlore” in the late 1950’s, and his work as a researcher, archivist, educator, writer, and Congressional lobbyist has helped identify what occupational folklife can be and why it matters. Green has celebrated the culture of work without hierarchical prejudice, whether tracing the arcane etymologies of “wobbly,” “fink,” and “dutchman,” analyzing the visual and sung representations of John Henry and union hero Joe Hill, or engaging the compelling music of Sarah Ogan Gunning, a Kentuckian singer who drew on personal tragedy to interpret traditional Appalachian ballads with grace and nuance and to compose topical anticapitalist protest lyrics of astonishing, gutwrenching power. In 1978, in response to the groundbreakingly varied occupational folklife presentations at the 1976 Festival of American Folklife, Robert Byington curated several theoretically-oriented, forward-looking articles for a special issue of Western Folklore entitled Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife. Drawing from the currents of British cultural studies and his own research with firefighters, Robert McCarl, the author of one of those essays, has buttressed occupational folklife with a rigorous theoretical framework of identity, diversity, and Marxist dialectical materialism. In his serious treatment of visual artists (particularly ceramic and textile artists) as workers, Henry Glassie has reprised William Morris.
More recently, folklorists have contributed a wealth of titles that further the study of occupational folklife, including Doug deNatale’s “The Dissembling Line: Industrial Pranks in a North Carolina Textile Mill” (1990); Patricia Cooper’s Once a Cigarmaker: Men, Women, and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (1992); and Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008). Since 1995 the Archie Green Occupational Folklife Fellowship has funded UNC-Chapel Hill scholars to investigate an exciting range of topics: African American lumber workers in the Jim Crow South (William Jones); the business of women’s foundations (Cristina Rosa Nelson); the New Left’s relationship to black liberation and the U.S. labor movement (Kieran Taylor); the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and its position within the contexts of the Civil Rights struggle and local soul music (John Hubbell); and Lumbee sheetrockers and the associated hip-hop scene in southeastern North Carolina (Jefferson Currie). Even in the face of seismic changes, the field of occupational folklife seems inexhaustible, despite its somewhat marginal status within the academy.
Of course, evidence and analysis of occupational folklife need not be academic, or even written; in fact, the most prominent cultural records tend toward other media. We all work, and we all work on work in different ways. Rigid Western cultural dichotomies––vernacular vs. academic, folk vs. fine, low vs. high––might assume strict delineations between cultural insider and outsider, between consultant and critic, but with assiduous cultural work, those specious oppositional poles will continue gradually to melt, giving way to collaborative, holistic evaluations. Today we might view images by professional artists like museum enshrined modernists Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn, which celebrate moments in 20th century American labor, alongside the roughly contemporaneous vernacular art of union organizer and painter Ralph Fasanella and mysterious Cuban American cigarmaker and collage artist Felipe Jesus Consalvos, who created from within and in response to their own work cultures. Today we consume workers’ culture represented in cinema, on television, and (as always) in song, but without always considering what is at stake behind those portrayals, whether nominally fictional or documentary. The songs of Dock Boggs, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie—three 20th-century giants of occupational folksong––will continue to inspire subsequent generations of  protest singers, “revivalists,” and workers. But contemporary audiences might feel more kinship to the working-class anthems of Bruce Springsteen or rappers Ghostface Killah and Lil’ Wayne’s surreal descriptions of drug dealing, economic decay, and despair in the urban ghetto.

Classic cinematic accounts of occupational folklife––from the fictional Citizen Kane (1941), On the Waterfront (1954) and Matewan (1987) to documentaries like Harvest of Shame (1960), The Inheritance (1964), African American Work Songs in a Texas Prison (1966), Salesman (1968), Harlan County, U.S.A. (1977), and the luminous films of William Greaves––must make room for equally relevant pop cultural accounts of contemporary labor-capital and labor-government power clashes like Office Space (1999), The Wire (2002-2008), and Michael Moore’s pop-doc movies. We are transfixed by all these depictions of worklife, but the trick is to reconcile sympathetic, artful representation and thoughtful analysis with real-world action in the ongoing battle against economic injustice and the rampant exploitation of workers. Finance capitalism, unprecedented migration, and dizzyingly accelerating scientific and political technologies have revolutionized the international flow of information, capital, products, and workers, transforming the nature of labor and class. The very study of occupational folklife implies a luxury, an overripe responsibility for advocacy and collaborative intervention, outside the academy and in the streets. How might our research and cultural production actually improve the lot of disadvantaged workers? How might workers access our fiery cultural critiques in order to kindle positive, populist change?


Roger Abrahams, Kenneth Goldstein, and Wayland Hand, eds., By Land and by Sea: Studies in the Folklore of Work and Leisure Honoring Horace P. Beck on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (1985); P.T. Barnum, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854); Mody Boatright, Folklore of the Oil Industry (1963); Robert Byington, ed., Working Americans: Contemporary Approaches to Occupational Folklife, a special issue of Western Folklore (July 1978); John Caligione, Doris Francis, and Daniel Nugent, eds., Workers’ Expressions: Beyond Accommodation and Resistance (1992); David Cecelski, The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (2001); Norman Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (1981); Earl Conrad, Gulf Stream North (1954); Patricia Cooper, Once a Cigarmaker: Men, Women, and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (1992); Doug DeNatale, “The Dissembling Line: Industrial Pranks in a North Carolina Textile Mill” (1990); Michael Denning: The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the 20th Century (1997); John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1938); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); Fannie Eckstorm and Mary Smyth, Minstrelsy of Maine (1927); Henry Glassie, Material Culture (1999); Archie Green, Only a Miner (1972), Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations (1993), Calf’s Head and Union Tale: Labor Yarns at Work and Play (1996); and Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture (2001); Archie Green, Utah Phillips, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, and Salvatore Salerno, eds., The Big Red Songbook: 250-Plus IWW Songs (2007); Jon Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest (1953); Wayland Hand, “American Occupational and Industrial Folklore: The Miner” (1969); Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008); Zora Neale Hurston, “Turpentine” (1939); Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country (1942); George Korson, Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miner (1927); John Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910); Robert McCarl, The District of Columbia Fire Fighters’ Project: A Case Study in Occupational Folklife (1985); Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851); Américo Paredes, “With a Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958); Manuel Peña, “From Ranchero to Jaiton: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-American Music (Two Styles in the Form of a Pair)” (1985); Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854); Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872) and Life on the Mississippi (1883); Mark Warner, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (1976)


•October 3, 2008 • 1 Comment



For some years, I wrote songs, sang, and played banjo and harmonica in a strange but committed band called The Wrist and Pistols. Pablo Colapinto (organ, piano, chromonica, vocals), Michael Colin (drums, percussion, sometimes vocals, also a member of Brooklyn heavies Aa), and William Pym (bass, vocals) rounded out this gang of whiskey-swilling verse shouters and stompers, with occasional contributions from other close friends. The Wrist and Pistols outfit opened for a lot of folks in Philadelphia and New York, and we toured the UK and Denmark too. But mostly we wrote and sang songs and riddles in rhyme, lots of them, convoluted and deadly sincere, for and about ourselves and each other; practices often ended in broken strings, broken bottles, and catatonia. Our chief ambitions in those days were to take a relax, make a good rock, and know each other more fully. These days we live all over the world, but we still play when we gather together, usually in the summertime and sometimes in the woods. Today other pursuits take up most of our time: doctoring, writing, worldmaking, curating, coding, cooking, camping, interviewing, editing, government work, photographing, filmmaking, fieldworking, fermenting. But these tunes survive, in all their baroque and busted glory.

So, submitted for archival and nostalgic purposes, here are all the “studio” and many “home” recordings, including Blessings (2003, featuring Luke Fischbeck of Lucky Dragons), Choke at Will (2005, featuring the lovely Meg Baird of Espers), the Lakeside Poconos-demos (2006), and the Apologies and E Pluribus Unicorn 7″s (2003 and 2006, respectively). (For initiates, Choke at Will is probably the easiest place to start.) Drop a line if you’d like CD or 7″ copies, with art and notes–plenty remain, believe me–or if you’re interested in (re)issuing any of this material, much of which was unreleased or only distributed smallbatch-style, like fine booze. Live recordings, radio broadcasts, outtakes, false starts, and studies provide additional buried treasure for the future–even more shambolic, if you can believe that. We made this music for you too, so enjoy (find download links below, beneath the night forest.) Or come here.

||||||||||||||||||WRISTOPOLIS (download tunes here)||||||||||||||||||



37. December 14, 2005:    Philadelphia:   Standard Tap, Standard Session with the Drugbyrds (Joey Sweeney.)

36. October 28, 2005:    New York:   Cakeshop with New England Roses (BARR/ JD Samson/ Sarah Shapiro), Lucky Dragons, and The Redcoats Are Coming.

34. September 24, 2005:   Brooklyn:   Sodafine. [Duo performance, sans Bones.]

33. August 10, 2005:   Philadelphia:   Khyber with Mit Nye Band, Lucky Dragons, and Aa. [Feat. Andreas Hauer-Jensen on drums.]

32. August 6, 2005:   Portland, Maine:   Longfellow Garden, on the occasion of the wedding of Rachel G. Lawrence and William M. Cohen. [Trio performance of Roosevelt Jamison’s soul classic “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”]

31. August 5, 2005:   Skowhegan, Maine:   Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture with Mit Nye Band. Bonfire show. [Feat. Asger Hvid on percussion.]

30. August 4, 2005:   Cambridge: Lorem Impsum Books with Mit Nye Band. Acoustic show. [Final show with Michael Colin, until his return from Tel Aviv.]

29. August 3, 2005:   Providence: 200 Million Transit St. with Mit Nye Band, Matthew de Gennaro, Geoff Mullen, and some other folks. [Moved from AS220 due to construction.]


28. July 17, 2005:   Philadelphia: Khyber with Sir Richard Bishop and Akron/Family.

27. May 4, 2005:   Philadelphia: Standard Tap, Standard Session with Scary Mansion and Michael Leviton. [Trio performance, without Mike.]

26. April 24 and 25, 2005:   Copenhagen, Denmark: Club Fox and Stengade 30, DJ sets as IAPM (International Association of Paper-Makers), sadly sans Pablo. Courtesy of Volkswagen and Escho crew.

25. March 18, 2005:  [performing as the Red Essentials] Philadelphia: Vox Populi with Radian and Steven James [who replaced Khonnor for unknown reasons.]

24. March 5, 2005:  Philadelphia: Khyber with 6 Organs of Admittance (featuring Chris Corsano) and PG Six

23. January 23, 2005:  New York, NY: Tonic, snowstorm show with The Scene is Now and Matt Mottel

22. January 22, 2005:  Philadelphia: Khyber with Relay, South Congress, and Phil Moore Browne [CANCELED-snow]

21. November 2, 2004:  Philadelphia: Khyber Election Day show with Landing, Arc in Round, and Anti-Clockwise (Robert of Tono-Bungay & The Scene Is Now)

20. September 26, 2004: Philadelphia: North Star with the Incredible String Band and Espers.

19. August 15, 2004: Philadelphia: Vox Populi with Flaherty & Corsano and Taurpis Tula. [CANCELED-sickness of others.]

18. July 17, 2004: Philadelphia: North Star w/ David Grubbs (of Gastr del Sol) and Mighty Flashlight (Mike Fellows of rites of Spring). Due to scheduling error, CHANGED to Scout Niblett and Swearing at Motorists.


17. July 4, 2004: London, England: The Bull (292-294 St. John’s St., Angel) w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman, Disastronaut, and the Euro 2004 Finals. [Final public engagement of “Dry Humping the Continent” European Tour.]

16. June 26, 2004: Aarhus, Denmark: SpLab/Noise Jihad @ Royal Danish Academy of Art w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman

15. June 25, 2004: Copenhagen, Denmark: Kirken i Mollegade, Escho Festival w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman, Dan Band, Düreforsög, Escho Big Band, Fontan, FOS, Bebe, skipper,, Teppop, Voks, MHM (Kill Your Teeth), Mads Heldtberg, Boriz Stjernebye, Uglen Batman, Thulebasen, Nis Sigurdsson & Marie Plum (blomster).

14. June 21, 2004: Stirling, Scotland: Inati2004 Video Showcase with Diskono folks and Wolftype. [CANCELED-mysterious circumstances.]

13. June 20, 2004: Edinburgh, Scotland: Subway w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman, Roddy Hart, and St. Jude’s Infirmary.

12. June 19, 2004: Glasgow, Scotland: TrainRec HQ w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman, Germlin, Thee Moths.

11. June 18, 2004: Dundee, Scotland: Beat Bar w/ Lucky Dragons, y.a.c.h.t., Bobby Birdman, Thee Moths, Indi Rev. [First engagement of “Dry Humping the Continent” European tour.]


10. May 1, 2004: Princeton, NJ: live on-air performance on WPRB’s Idiot Control

9. April 24, 2004: Philadelphia: Bibliotheque 4th Annual Benefit/Anniversary for at Robert’s House w/ Lucky Dragons, Illoin, She-Wolf

8. April 2, 2004: Philadelphia: Khyber w/ Don Caballero, Man Man

7. February 18, 2004: Philadelphia: Khyber w/ Espers, Jackie O Motherfucker

6. February 6, 2004: Philadelphia: AKA Records in-store performance

5. January 10, 2004: Philadelphia: Muffin Buckingham house on Mole St. w/ Lucky Dragons, Muffin Buckingham. [First outing as 4-piece, with William on bass.]

4. June 28-29, 2003: Philadelphia: Dragonballz 2-day farewell festival at Soap Factory w/ Lucky Dragons, Illoin, Stay Fucked, Semiautomatic, Aa, This Invitation, Golden Ball/Ex Reverie, Sweatheart, the Three Rs, The Nine Billion Names of God, Jen Turrell, Boyracer, Dream House, Origami. [First outing as 3-piece, with Michael on electronic drums.]

3. May 22, 2003: Philadelphia: Soap Factory w/ Dat Politics, Espers, Nathan Michel, Lucky Dragons

2. May 13, 2003: Philadelphia: “Baby Girl Put It On Me” tattoo art show at Space 1026

1. March 12, 2003: Philadelphia: Soap Factory w/ Aa, Lucky Dragons, Loveletter Band, Horse Sinister and others we can’t remember

That’s all I can remember. Historical details are fuzzy.

More information here and here.


•October 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Welded graffiti on a Yukon gold dredge.

Here’s something more recent, an epistolary polemic I wrote with my brother Will Pym, aka Bones. Expect more. This will appear in the pamphlet for “Castle in Context” at Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, opening next weekend. The show coincides with the Castle retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for whom I wrote a long catalogue essay as well. That will be up sometime soon…


Saturday, September 20th 2008
Dear and only Southern brother,
Been thinking about Castle here in the crazy lattice of New York, and thinking about you in your castle down there in the sticks. It gets too much for me here, sometimes. I think a lot about that Debord thing, psychogeography, where the constructed world, the natural world and the inner world collapse into one thing, one place, your place. You need to know your place in New York if you don’t want to make bad art or be forgotten or never be remembered, but I’m finding that a healthy psychogeography is, unlike bagels or pornography, rather difficult to obtain here. You need a strategy. All I see sometimes are shortcuts, and sometimes it makes me miserable.
I see youngers signing on to the mongrel diaspora scene to become a nimble, globally minded hobo. And this is dynamite for them. New York has ever embraced rootless people, and contemporary art currently embraces the polyglot, he who rejects the imperialism and unilateral elitism of art as it used to be. Art is being made all over the world now, and it’s chic and socially proper to take a view with a wider ecology, and, most interestingly to the art industry, people all over the world are now buying expensive art, and more of it as each month passes. A multicultural position in New York is both right-on and canny.
I see youngers hooking up to an established artistic lineage to become tribute spawn of someone who did it and flourished before. And this is gold every time too. Inventing a present that delights nostalgists and validates the work of historians is a fast track to popularity in New York, because it seems respectful and reverential, religious-type feelings that are canny to express in a city that’s also a church to itself. Assuming a position in a continuum gives weight to a practice, and weight prevents momentum flagging.
I see youngers selling off unvarnished morsels of their tarnished virgin essence, soul on sale in a pure form. Killer. With this transaction the hat is tipped to Manhattan and the dirtier spirit of rebellion and reinvention that thrives here, and something is exchanged that is rare and valuable. The buyer wins because the stock is strong, and the seller wins because they’ve found the perfect gig: fantastic pay for acting without thinking. The young artist need not even remember what they’ve done or why they do it, for neon gas continues to light the way to their next work.
A proper atom-smashing collision of the many worlds you simultaneously inhabit in your daily environment, this psychogeography, is not easy, I know that, it’s not as easy as just wanting to do it. It’s a huge construction, and it’s a construction that must be built strong enough to last your entire life. I can’t beef with the folk taking shortcuts, since it’s intimidating and expensive to live here and try and be an artist. But we shouldn’t be taking these shortcuts, should we? Again, I’ve been thinking about Castle, and I’ve been thinking about you.
Please reply. Your friend,

Monday, September 22, 2008: Autumnal Equinox
My dearest pal métropolitaine,

Another summer done gone today, another sneaky equinox, a mite meaningless down here in Carolina, where the weather will belch out the tedious dregs of sunshine and sweat for at least another month more. Even now a riot of thrushes crashes at oaks outside; sullen deer stare stupidly through the thick heat; blue-tailed lizards sun themselves on the porch. (Remember, on your last visit, the great barred owl that swooped over the picnic table, saw us, and hovered above for a few breathless seconds, stunned and flapping white, before peeling back into the woods?) Still, it’s finally cooling off some, the light is mellowing toward autumnal, and human critters can now keep their windows open at night (thank God.) As I consider our letters moving between distant places, I am comforted by Melville’s words to Hawthorne on June 29, 1851, a relieved account of summertime escape from the city, toward honest work and into a less cluttered life of the mind:
“The ‘Whale’ is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass––and end the book reclining on it, if I may.”
He really knew what was up, that guy! Well, in certain respects, anyway. Although it’s a notion foreign to the insular ferocity of your precocious youngers, busy talkin’ turkey in the “babylonish brick-kiln,” lighting out for the territories to roam in workmanlike reverie, away from the madding crowds, will never go out of style. That taciturn, idealistic American move––redolent of Emerson, of Whitman, of Twain, of Dos Passos––cannot become antiquated and creaky, can it? Or has it already, astronomical gas prices (and literalism) aside? No chance of those dudes sauntering in right now to map our communal routes, no, that fictive moment of integrity and solidarity is gone again like summer, but hell, that’s sort of what all these hippie revivalist youngers are angling at, ain’t it? But what are they making, anything useful to cultures beyond those of their own in-the-know ilk and those of speculative finance capitalism (i.e., the commercial art world)? Maybe… but as an “inside man” (solid Spike Lee joint, that one) you are better poised to answer that question than me.
This much I know. Nothing is dire, brother––hope springs from swampside campsites, chubby breakfast hoagies, and clean, quiet workshops. Go outside, young woman, and go home, go away, young man, cheaply! Swallow your solipsism, and serve righteously. If we labor at harvesting our whales and share the ambergris, we can all “end the book reclining” on the grass together; yes, we may! If it’s unabashed romance you want––we two certainly stand guilty as charged on that count––do some research and reach out: a healthy grasp on history will inform your tactics and ethical interventions, especially during these warring days.
The appeal of James Castle, his relevance to every young artist today––regardless of whether you like the work; taste is a lame luxury and a hurdle, anyway––is his uncanny ability to o’erleap his own seemingly boundless interiority and communicate with others about home and horizon, the limits of self and language, with grace, good humor, and humble poetry. Castle lived in the territories––Idaho was only granted statehood in 1890, a mere nine years before his birth––and he made art that was about meticulously navigating that place, his space, intimate and immediate. We can meet him halfway, at least. He understood the power of restraining scale and scope, of positioning fresh worlds in interpenetrating dialogue, of daily hard work untethered to the expectation of social or monetary rewards. He understood the power of wandering locally, of conserving and recycling materials, of environmental tendresse oblige. His practice and his art speak plainly, but vastly, enigmatically, and yes, romantically.
So a few thoughts, vis-à-vis Mr. Castle, environment, ecology, and economy… You seem keen to discuss psychogeography and sense of place, and we know for sure how tiresome all these authenticity debates have become, so for today I’m keen to avoid retreading academic arguments about the vernacular, the modern, and the degree of the artist’s education, disability, and literacy, problematics which have been adequately covered elsewhere, and recently. Who was this Castle, and what can he possibly mean to us today? His contexts are manifold. Appropriationist, grammatogenist, domestic documentarian, conjurer of surrogates. Stylus virum arguit: Style betrays the man.
Castle saw a surplus, a mid-century excess of stuff, and he reversed it. His articulations of ecology and economy were entwined. To him, the “natural” (overdetermined) relations between things—environmental things, cultural things, word things––demanded a perspectival reconsideration, a reevaluation of every artifact, relic, or fossil as potentially gut-punch personal, containing a mine-able truth value and an emotional ore inside the dull, scavenged stone. What could be more political than that? What could be more punk? He retrofitted the obscure, cocksure language of commerce and classroom, a language probably mostly mysterious to him, into lovely private codes at once arcane and transparently poetic. Here’s an idea close to the hearts and minds of all those youngers: coding, the idea that what we do—what I do—is secret. OK, but make it matter to us; give us a map to how it means, or risk dissolving into belly-button wankery. Look at the Castles. Think collectively and privately; temper analysis with innervisions (good Stevie Wonder record, that one.) Make things that change minds.
There is a bright memory I’d like to share about rumbling and rambling through Boise and Garden Valley, Idaho with a man I very much admire, and an idea I have about the B-movie horror director William Castle (no evident relation), but it will all have to wait until the next installment. I’ve rattled on too long already. I’m starving, and there are two hot dogs and a jar of okra pickles with my name on them in the refrigerator. I blame any purple and polemical archness herein on my empty belly. Of course, this business of critique and crafting manifestoes is deadly serious, but a man’s got to eat, right? And it’s a beautiful fall day outside.
Your brother in arms,
Late Wednesday, September 24, beneath Manhattan
Dear creature,
I am sending word now from a New Jersey PATH train, keying my love to you through a mobile telephone. I should have been home 40 minutes ago for a late but accepted bedtime deadline, but the downtown platform was closed at 14th. Thus I have just left 33rd street after traveling in the wrong direction (is all was offered me) and am now heading back south and under the Hudson in a subway car with perhaps 2 dozen defeated immigrants and shriveling vampires slumped about me. What a rigamarole. Sobering up alone, sweat glazing my temples after a night of booze and brotherhood with our old friend GB. I write now, what better time? I’m understimulated by what I’ve been offered in one of those New York craters, the time between time that’s neither asked for or ever anticipated. Can’t find anything.
It’s been a long time since I read prose so purple, pal, your letter warmed my heart. No stronger case could be made, with words sprouting from warm, fertile earth, for the way you live your life. It sounds like freedom to me. We don’t even have to take drugs any more, my man, what a surprise that is, eh? Your message of found peace cements something I’ve believed for ages, shucks, something I’ve considered time after time since you took on country life. This place, this train, this city, is for the birds. And by the birds I mean nobody. The birds of course are plunging through your neck of the woods, and happily so.
I caught a remarkable whiff at a snatch of stuff in a collection of Yves Klein’s writings today that corroborated your thought on Castle and the reversal of a surplus, the condensation of big into small, global into interpersonal into internal. Social philosopher and mid-Century Frankfurter Theodor Adorno (who I know nothing about) was thinking about 19th-Century poet Heinrich Heine (who I really know nothing about) and the pain he inflicted on the German Romantic spirit of the time. Heine apparently became enlightened and decided that his Romantic soul had flourished idly off the good fortune of autonomy to create art that was commodity, something easily and sincerely created becoming something easily and sincerely bought and sold. Thus he changed his mind about the romance of being a Romantic. Heine’s Northern gloom is not massively different from mine as it was a few days ago when the best I could think of was to write to you, but I took heart here, man! Considering the generosity of spirit, the playfulness, the exploration and the economy in Castle’s oeuvre (laid out so eloquently in your last letter), I do not see a jot of evidence that the man ever took his autonomy for granted, and grew casual with it. Castle’s gifts were given without goals in a marketplace, for his was a sort of autonomy that did not churn towards a signature style, a certain location in a collector’s home, and a pricing structure. His autonomy begot not a product, but a prism. His autonomous romantic existence did not set him free (it takes more than that, buddy, as we well know from disappointing months and years in our shared pasts) but it did allow him to build a very large framework that could contain everything he saw, from all the angles he saw it, and from which he could start piecing together the dense psychogeography this autonomy had afforded him. As I wailed at you about New York the other day, confronting one’s psychogeography is not a small or a swift undertaking, and there are ways to skirt it, but Castle always did it, and never didn’t. There’s a lesson and something for the youngers to work for, I reckon. ‘If you see something, say something,’ suggests a bit of Transit Authority paranoia propaganda facing me on this blasted fucking train that refuses to take me home. Too right, whispers Castle’s ghost.
This ain’t much of a message beyond, perhaps, say it all. James Castle has allowed me that tonight. Would you believe it I’m finally home. There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s outside the train station 90 seconds away, I wonder what 2 dollars can do at 2 in the morning. No need to reply, this is real stuff but hardly a response, it’s just that I miss you. This letters on the telephone thing feels interesting, not quite swimming with your boots on but something like it… Painting with the curtains closed? I shall ascend and hit send and put this in the hands of satellite carrier pigeons. Send a kiss to the Mrs. and sweet dreams. More anon.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


September 26, 2008

Dear Boss Bones:

Still where you left me, at my kitchen desk, with two Castles hanging just above my forehead, a donkey and an “ASHLEY.” Yesterday’s tropical storm is finally clearing—sodden dead branches are still bombarding our tin roof periodically––and I’m recovering from a late breakfast of cornmeal hocakes. Found a homemade wooden bathouse at the dump yesterday, basically a birdhouse for bats, which I took home with me. It’s smaller than a briefcase, but purports to shelter 25 bats! Got to whip up some cocktail concoction for a party this evening at BF’s tonight—I’m thinking a jug of mint juleps maybe. But best not to consider that too much yet, as it’s only noon now. I was delighted to receive your letter this morning, and I smiled to picture you enjoying a few twilight McDonald’s double cheesers on the night in question. But I was devastated to discover recently that they have been expunged from the dollar value menu—ouch, the rising price of cheese!

Speaking of fast food, I hear your words about commodity and the end of romance, and I hold onto them. How can we claw our way out of commoditization? Castle’s works command high prices, and as such, they have irrevocably escaped the milieu of their making. Adorno can be useful for buttressing anxieties about product, marketplace, and spectacle, but as much as I respect some of his writing, I find it hard to forgive the grim Teutonic rigor that undercut his own ideas about freedom. Theo notoriously hated jazz with a vehemence that approached racism, blathering on about its “regressive” and licentious decadence, its mechanical and fascist (!) features, and the narcotic stupor of all dance and popular music. Granted, the historical and theoretical contexts of his analysis profoundly differ from ours, but I like to imagine him meeting Charlie Mingus in a dark L.A. alley––they both lived there for much of the 1940s––and getting his ass kicked.

Anyway, context is the keyword for the occasion of this exhibition. To be fair, I get Adorno’s worries about the danger of staging an ersatz democracy, a concern that might corral Castle enthusiasts as well. After all, I have yet to find an essay or biography on the man’s art that doesn’t include a prominent disclaimer about his deafness and his plucky bootstrapper’s capacity to transcend his communicative restrictions, usually voiced right up front with paternalistic glee. That biographical detail is certainly relevant to his art, especially the text work, but its patronizing emphasis tends to ghettoize Castle’s art into a category apart, an imaginary world of naives, innocents, and noble idiots. The fact is that too many Castle investigations present only a blinkered pseudo-democratic context for the appraisal of his work, as if home and deafness constituted his lived totality. His relative isolation and lack of education belie a thoroughly modernist practice conducted along a vernacular axis. When it comes to insisting on Castle’s supposed seclusion from normative human experience, methinks the hearing critic doth protest too much.

This nasty residue evokes another death match: James Castle vs. William Castle, a contemporaneous schlock-shock B-movie filmmaker of no relation whose gimmicky 1959 thriller The Tingler pits megalomaniacal, LSD-dropping scientist Vincent Price against the eponymous monster, a parasitic (rubber) worm that sleeps in everyone’s spine until awakened by paralyzing fear. The film’s first theatrical run featured “Percepto!”, vibrating buzzers installed beneath select seats in the audience that encouraged viewers to let loose bloodcurdling screams on cue, the only way to destroy the Tingler. An otherwise sympathetic “deaf-mute” character in the film is doomed by her inability to scream, much like James Castle has been condemned (until recently) to a singularity and exceptionalism that sometimes feels more condescending and confused than reverent. “Castle in Context” knocks William Castle’s dumb conceit on its ass. This show unbridles Castle from his surroundings by thoughtfully placing his art in dialogue with a number of other artists whose idiosyncratic idioms examine natural mystery, domesticity, and the passage of time in likeminded ways, both cryptic and palpable. The esoteric, the byzantine, and the furtive can coexist here with the everyday, the earthy, and the earnest. It’s a helluva grip. Pay attention, youngers! This one’s for you.

Well, the rain seems to have stopped for good now, so I have just one more tale to tell before I nail my pinebox bathouse to a tall pine at the edge of our backyard and head off to the liquor store. Two summers ago I visited Boise and its outerlying hamlets to try to absorb something of Castle’s genius through osmosis or sympathetic respiration or vibe-hunting or whatever… Maybe I inhaled some gold dust. Parts of downtown Boise today resemble Disneyworld’s Frontierland, a baldly glitzy simulacrum of its rugged outlander history. But the areas surrounding Garden Valley, where Castle was born, are completely alien to that commercial impulse, a lunar landscape of hot springs, ghost towns, and miners’ graveyards. My wonderful and engaging guide CC drove me leisurely through the high Idaho sagebrush desert; we spoke about the mining-ravaged hills, about altruism as an evolved evolutionary trait, about how he broke both his legs in a mountain climbing accident and couldn’t walk for four years (he took up kayaking instead, and friends carried him to the water), about how when he was in grad school at UCLA he used to swim laps with Chris Burden (who was known as “Tubby” at the time), how Vito Acconci used to leave voicemails for him. On the way back we stopped in Idaho City, a weird ex-con and longhair frontier outpost, to buy two comedy-sized cans of Foster’s.

What struck me most that day, charged by affable companionship and stimulating conversation, was the evidence everywhere of gold and other goodies wrung and ripped from the earth: oceanic swells of tailings, drifts of sediment, mounds of dynamited rock. Since then I’ve explored similarly undone and overgrown landscapes on the Yukon in Alaska, ramshackle, rust-blooming monuments to human industry and sheer willpower. If we can momentarily set aside our justified environmentalist objections, perhaps these technologies of diligent, undaunted control over one’s surroundings can serve as an apt metaphor for Castle’s achievement and the mandate his art imposes for contemporary artists. He translated his daily world, an environment ripe with challenges and unanswered questions, into an eloquent visual practice that simultaneously elevated his experience into the ether and rooted it in universal affect. Wherever you call home, whether Citymouth or Countrymouse, the way to avoid backsliding is to dig in deep. You mention those “New York craters” as traps, but maybe the best way to navigate those holes is to tunnel between them and to keep digging, subterranean. Here’s hoping that young artists who visit 1616 Walnut St. over the next month or two will emerge inspired by the perennial relevance of Castle’s example, spades in hand.


Baldhead Growler

The Black Camel of Death.

•October 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Another piece for the Crier, Fall 2006. This is the essay I read at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Periodically Speaking Event at the NYC Public Library in June 2007; I was selected as the emerging fiction writer of note, whatever that means. I did a web-exclusive interview with Christine too, available here.



–from artist Anthony Campuzano’s “Violent Deaths” drawings (2003-2005)

When I was 10—or around then, it’s hard to remember—I died in a car accident. Or so I heard during one gray Sunday Mass, when a muttering deacon solemnly pronounced me dead in prayer, the fellow casualty of few bigger boys more duly departed, in a true crash. My parents weren’t there, so no one noticed that I was in fact alive and well, squirming in the pew, an unlikely companion for a sedan full of drunk teenagers. It was a dull shock—no triumphant Tom Sawyer moment—and I never figured out if it was a morbid joke on the part of my classmates or an honest mistake. (Shortly after my “accident,” I won a MADD-sponsored poster contest, sanctioned by my Catholic elementary school, with what should have been a worryingly gory drawing of a young man splayed over the blood-drenched hood of a crushed yellow Corvette.) In college, I narrowly survived a wintry wreck on Christmas Eve, pried from my father’s Geo with the Jaws of Life and airlifted to Boston Medical with several broken ribs, one of which had punctured my right lung, filling it with blood. But it was a bus that finally buried me.
The Black Camel of Death found me first in autumn, in a school bus in Avalon, Mississippi. There is no sign for Avalon Road, and I’m no navigator, but I’ve managed to find the spot twice in as many years, on two separate pilgrimages to bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s grave. The dirt road rises sharply from the edge of the Delta, winding into the kudzu-bruised hills above the river’s furthest fingers aching eastward. The Hurt family plot, when you finally stumble upon it, resembles not so much a graveyard as a forest clearing faintly hiding its dead beneath untidy ridges. Of the dozen or so knolls, many remain unmarked, while others have been planted with placards, faded into obscurity and folded into tin signposts like those found in botanical gardens. John Hurt’s resting place features a sturdy stone slab, littered with guitar picks, a few stunted candles, a cracked CD or two, and once, oddly, a hand of sodden Pokémon cards.
The bus in question, entombed a good 50 yards from Hurt’s grave, is no longer roadworthy in the functional sense, but, swallowed up to its yawning emergency doors in an embankment, it is perhaps love-worthy, the road’s darling. On my first visit, I noted it but rolled on by. On my second visit months later, the crows sniping at a clutch of rotting fish just outside somehow emboldened me. Stepping through its exposed rear maw into the thick heat, I quickly realized, despite the darkness of soil beyond the windows, that it was a short bus, maybe a ’50s model, sufficient for a rural community, but cozily coffin-like in its present subterranean setting. Inside, among the uprooted seats and drifts of detritus, I came across an old Camel cigarettes sign, the dromedary silhouette blacked out with rust. A simple advertisement, darkened with age, the ruined image remains as vivid to me as the cemetery destination itself, somehow as attuned to death as Hurt’s humble hole outside. Its silence was blaringly appropriate after hours of listening to Mississippi John’s music—itself so keenly familiar with mortality—on the car stereo driving south.

Not so silent was the preacher who, over seven decades before my encounter, warned his faithful of the inexorable coming of the Black Camel.

Ahh, we’re going to speak now from the subject: the Black Camel Death, travels in the path of misunderstanding. The locomotive engineer misunderstood his message. Fails to take the siding, and the Black Camel of Death meets him and others, ah, swept into the judgment. There are many passengers and the engineers all gone to the judgment by failing to understand—Black Camel of Death pulled him into eternity. The fast driver of a car, the auto car, sees the curves and the signals and fails to understand the dangers. He rides on in a hurry. He’s in such a hurry—the faster he goes, the faster he wants to go. `Til he meets another fast-going car right around the curve. And it goes on a head-on collision and the Black Camel Death meets them in the path of misunderstanding and into the judgment he goes. Oh yes, that loving wife, he fails to understand her, and she goes her own route, and by and by it winds up, ah, in dissatisfaction and death, because the Black Camel Death got on the trail, and so with a flying machine, the man that jets in the air and flies away like a bird and goes way over towards the ocean and the seas, take a long journey, fails to put enough oil in his machine, and fails to put enough gas in his machine, and he goes on flyin’, and by and by into some hamlet, into some wilderness he’s going down, and we’ll see him no more. Black Camel Death that met him.

I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.

Yes, I got good religion, my Lord.
Well, I got good religion, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.

Well, you better get your ticket, my Lord.
Well you better get your ticket, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well,I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.

On Nov. 5, 1929, in Atlanta , the Rev. J.M. Milton, accompanied by a few anonymous members of his congregation, recorded “The Black Camel of Death,” a sermon and song on the subjects of speed, transport, and mortality. This rare 78 side, exhumed and reissued a few years back on Goodbye, Babylon, the Dust-to-Digital label’s indispensable six-volume set of Southern American gospel music, is possibly a product of some African-American Holiness denomination (“Holiness,” a catch-all term for a few related traditions, developed into Pentecostalism). Yet Milton’s preaching style is uncharacteristically restrained and subtle. And while the coda sung by the congregation seemingly indicates an ecstatic sanctified tradition related to early Pentecostalism, its lack of instrumental accompaniment makes determining any specific tradition a thorny undertaking. We don’t really know where it comes from, or much about the Reverend himself. (Speculative temptations abound—does his surname imply a spiritual kinship with another judgment-fixated and music-loving J. Milton?)
We can, however, surmise with near-certainty that the record is one of the many released to capitalize on the extraordinary success of another Atlanta preacher, the Rev. J.M. Gates of the Streamline Baptist Church, who began his celebrated recording career in 1926. The most prolific of documented pre-World War II preachers, Pastor Gates (1884-1954) recorded over 200 sermons and songs, spawning a veritable cottage industry of imitators. In the liner notes to Goodbye, Babylon, David Evans remarks that Gates’ funeral was the most widely attended African-American funerary service in Atlanta prior to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Evans also observes, however, that Milton’s “The Black Camel of Death” was decidedly “too esoteric to have assured him a hit record.” Makes you wonder if he ever had one… maybe his recordings of “Damnation Train,” or “Silk Worms and Boll Weevils,” made the same year, were more popular.

Atlanta in the late ’20s and ’30s—along with Memphis, Houston, and Bristol, Tenn.— served as an epicenter for the recording of Southern music. This meant “race” records (African-American jazz, blues and gospel) and rural white hillbilly, ballads, and religious songs, as well as spoken word, although genre distinctions weren’t as neat as they are today. At the time, the strict delineation between racial forms was often a mere marketing designation, an artificially imposed binary. Black and white gospel and banjo music in particular shared a considerable overlap, borrowing much from what overzealous (white) talent scouts and recording engineers deemed disparate traditions.
Musicians also frequently confounded established sacred and secular boundaries, with the most profane bluesmen and the crassest mountain men adopting holier-than-thou epithets and aliases on records, dubbing themselves “Reverend”, “Brother,” “Sister,” “”Elder,” “Deacon,” or just the old sympathetic standby “Blind,” in an attempt to appeal to a growing gospel market seeking fireside inspiration from the pious. It’s entirely possible that even “Rev. J.M. Milton” is, in fact, a pseudonym, perhaps even a suggestion of his famous namesake. Recorded sermons, and their fictional and real authors alike, enjoyed brief popularity, but were rendered all but obsolete by the proliferation of home radio in the 1930s, which Christian families used to tune in to their favorite preacher deliver a new, ever-more-topical sermon each week. Seldom if ever recorded, this first generation of religious radio broadcasts is best examined by studying recorded and distributed precursors like “The Black Camel of Death.”
There are, however, significant distinctions between broadcast and recorded sermons. Whereas broadcasts could be directed to an actual, measurable—albeit invisible and mute—audience listening live from their living rooms, at home in their Southern dogrots, shotguns, and even Northern railroad apartments, recorded sermons necessarily depended upon a weirder, more elusive kind of theatricality. Not only did these 78s need to stand up to repeated playings, but unlike radio preachers, who could at least communicate to an imaginary live audience in real time—and who sometimes were taped in the comfort of their own churches—the preachers and “congregations” heard responding and singing in recorded sermons usually consisted of just a few individuals performing for themselves, the microphone, and (at best) a handful of citified recording engineers. The duration of each sermon was determined by the approximately three-minute maximum length of a 78 side, causing the message and method to be condensed and distilled. To make matters more awkward, late ’20s recording technology demanded an often-convoluted set-up requiring utter stillness on the part of performers as well as a stilted choreography of varying distances from the single microphone. And at the end of the session, they had only the vague promise of ever seeing the record pressed and released, let alone sold and heard by an audience prepared to accept the Word. That audience—so necessary for a sermon, particularly in African-American Christian traditions—is absent altogether. Listeners, traditionally encouraged and even conditioned to respond to a live preacher, instead were asked to identify with an abridged surrogate, a mini-congregation—in Rev. J.M. Milton’s case, apparently one man and two women, probably professional recording artists like their pastor.

“The Black Camel of Death” is a warning against the various forms of spiritual failure, its myriad routes and avenues, all of which inevitably end with the terrible Black Camel himself. Some form of the word “failure”—often coupled with “misunderstanding”—appears a total of six times through the brief text. The metaphor is a thoroughly mixed one. Milton counsels us against the dangers of sin in an allegory about “the locomotive engineer,” “the fast driver of a car” (and his “loving wife,” an innocent victim of his speed-lust), and the pilot, “the man that jets in the air.”  The motorist and the pilot commit egregious sins of recklessness: the former is too hasty and heavy-footed and the latter neglects his vehicle, forgetting to feed it enough oil and gas, eventually plummeting to his death. Both encounter the Black Camel on the “path” or “trail” of misunderstanding they pursue, which is the Camel’s customary circuit.
The engineer and the driver’s wife, however, meet the Camel on far more abstract and blameless terms. The engineer merely (and inexplicably) “fails to take the siding,” perhaps implying a problem navigating the rails or referring to “taking the side” of understanding. Prompted by the inability of her speed-obsessed husband to understand her, the desperate wife takes a detour, “her own route” to “dissatisfaction and death.” And yet all four characters are “swept into the judgment,” as if judgment is a destination in and of itself, a purgatory or hell, and not only an eschatological process. In all cases, velocity and acceleration herald the appearance of the Camel, which represents an earthly destination, and also the final mode of transportation into the unknowable beyond.
Over the course of the three-minute parable, Milton’s diction accelerates from an easy, contemplative swagger to a more pronounced melodic intonation, finally building to a rich, hiccupping canter. He “sees the curves and the signals” and “take[s] the siding” along with the characters in the sermon. The congregation’s interjections also become more fevered and frequent. Escalating shouts of “Alright!”, “Pick it up now!”,  “Yeah!”,  “Preach it good now!”, and “Oh Jesus!” punctuate a hum and moan that swells in intensity until finally breaking into a song led by the women, clapping. Suddenly Milton takes on the role of responder, encouraging his flock with exclamations of “Sing it good, children!” The song itself, a simple refrain on the reassuring possession of “a ticket to Zion,” is not unique, appearing elsewhere in Southern gospel music, but it is particularly appropriate in the context of a sermon about transportation’s dangers, real and metaphorical. And just as Milton relinquishes command over the message to his singers, the song offers a substitution—the promise of a godly, and conspicuously unnamed, transport to Paradise in lieu of the Black Camel.

Milton’s railing against the negative effects of ever-increasing speed on an emerging generation of motorists and their families certainly has a charmingly paternal ring, but more crucially, the sermon is a topical response to modernity, or at least its shining pledge of advancing technology and shrinking distances. But what exactly is the Black Camel of Death? In the brief introduction to the sermon on the Dust-to-Digital re-issue, David Evans supposes that the central image “evidently comes from a type of airplane, the Sopwith Camel, but for Rev. Milton the camel seems to represent death itself.” Evans’s literalism risks shortsightedness, for Milton’s knowledge of the Sopwith Camel—a British RAF plane instrumental in the First World War, and the first ever featuring dual machine guns, as deadly to fly as to face in battle—while interesting to ponder, is incidental to a much more bizarre metaphorical maze. The Black Camel, it turns out, is not just some shadowy Southern specter or arcane metaphorical anomaly, but an established image of death, traceable to Arab Islam via Victorian Britain.
“Death is a Black Camel that lies down at every door; sooner or later you must ride the camel”: so goes the Arab proverb. Tradition has it that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, Zayd al-Khayr, traveled to Medina and was moved when he heard the Prophet explaining his ascendancy over various pre-Muslim Arab idols—“I am better for you than the black camel which you worship besides Allah.” In the 19th century, two prominent Victorians appropriated the image, emphasizing its exotic Eastern derivation. “There is a black camel upon which Death rides, say the Arabs, and that must kneel at every man’s door. With impartial hand he dashes down the palace of the monarch as well as the cabin of the peasant”—from “Momento Mori,” Sermon #304, delivered in 1860 at Exeter Hall, Strand, England, by the Rev. C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), one of the age’s best-known preachers. Popular Manx novelist, playwright, and possible pedophile Hall Caine (1853-1931), secretary and friend to Pre-Raphaelite big man Dante Gabriel Rossetti during his final years, mentions the Black Camel in The Scapegoat, his 1890 Moroccan fantasy: “It was a melancholy parting. No one came near them—neither Moor nor Jew, neither Rabbi nor elder. The idle women of the Mellah would sometimes stand outside in the street and look up at their house, knowing that the black camel of death was kneeling at their gate.”
Where and when the Black Camel kneeled down at Rev. Milton’s door is unclear, but it appears not to have been a popular symbolic element in early 20th century (or any era’s) Christian discourse. Christianity has waged a long symbolic safari, domesticating the lamb, the lion, the dove, and the fish to saddle them with human meaning. (The “White Mule of Sin,” referring to a slang term for moonshine—it had “kick”—was another, less common, animal figure in early twentieth-century American sermons, also making an appearance on Goodbye, Babylon. Faulkner used Christian-oriented animal imagery extensively. And let us not forget the heavyweight champion of the menagerie, Melville’s White Whale.) But Milton’s Black Camel is a marked divergence from Christian Biblical orthodoxy. His vision of mortality and the hereafter is a wholesale appropriation from another religion and culture, which asks us to rethink not only the evolution of early Protestantism, but the ridigity of modern Christian doctrine. For all its fire and brimstone, Christianity in its early days of American diversification seems to have been more flexible and porous a metaphorical system. Whether he knew it and didn’t admit it, or he didn’t know it at all, Milton freely adopted a foreign “heathen” metaphor, conflating an ancient Muslim symbol and a modern Christian anxiety, reinvigorating both. In one deft, syncretic blow, intentionally or unwittingly, he employed modernist appropriation tactics in an evangelical gospel guise, forging a peculiarly American modernist trope. And it must be said in so doing, our Milton manages to far surpass the insular and dogmatic dross of much contemporary Christian pop.

“The Black Camel of Death” wasn’t the first, or last time, that the Camel—the expression of the fear of speed, the dread of the crash—made its mark in the culture. Milton’s sermon leads us simultaneously back to a Romantic articulation of proto-modernism and forward, to our current media obsessions.
Franz Schubert is generally credited with composing the first kunstlied, or art song (roughly speaking, a short piece of music which marries compositional “artistic” aspiration and popular form.) Dating to 1815, “Der Erlkönig,” based on a text written by Goethe, tells the gloomy story of a young boy riding through the woods in his father’s arms late one night. The child repeatedly cries out in fear of a mysterious, beckoning shade (the title character), whom the father repeatedly dismisses as a figment of the boy’s imagination. When the riders arrive at their destination, the boy is dead.  A hundred years later, “The Black Camel of Death” reprised this terror of speed and transport; Milton’s quickening elocution and the gradually increased density and blood-boiling fervor of his congregation’s responses echo Schubert’s galloping piano octaves and the ascending range and volume of the boy’s vocal part. Both songs feature a symbolic mythic creature that appears only to the dying or doomed traveling character. (The Erl King, sometimes inaccurately translated as “Elf King,” is an omen of death probably derived from the ellerkonge of Danish folklore.) It is unlikely that Milton was aware of Schubert’s song, but the connections are nonetheless worth making: Both pieces identify mortality as a private phantom vision associated with travel and speed, and both mimic this speed musically. As such, Milton’s recording serves as a kind of American vernacular art song. Both Schubert and Milton recognized and grasped at what Harry Partch (1901-1974), the maverick American hobo-poet, instrument sculptor, and microtonal composer, termed “corporeal music”—music fundamentally attuned to the human body, in this case, to the still-staggering potential of the human voice to communicate meaning through sound.  For Rev. Milton and his congregation, sound is power wielded. Their Gospel is essentially a speech act, a transfer of Logos, the Word of Christ, to the human larynx and onto a brittle shellac disc via electrical and etching technologies, the Word made flesh.
Americans have had a long, uneasy love affair with our deadly, darling vehicles, a subject explored time and again in pop culture, from the puppy-eyed mock-teen innocence of “Leader of the Pack” and “Teen Angel” to the homoerotic hot rod fetish flicks of Kenneth Anger. The morbid fascination that made David Cronenberg’s nasty 1996 film “Crash” such a sensation likewise fed into the surreal media furor over the recent Pacific Coast Highway accident of one sinister Stefan Eriksson. In a case of life outpacing fiction, on February 21, 2006, the alleged Swedish gangster and embezzling video game entrepreneur smashed his unregistered and illegally imported one-million-dollar Ferrari Enzo—only 400 were manufactured, one of which was bequeathed to Pope John Paul II—into a roadside telephone pole in Malibu at approximately 160 mph. Approached by two supposed Homeland Security agents before police arrived at the scene, an unharmed Eriksson claimed to be the passenger, that a man known only to him as “Dietrich” was driving. Despite what Eriksson insisted was the driver’s copious blood on the airbag, the mysterious “Dietrich” never surfaced, though cocaine allegations and grand theft auto, drunk driving and weapons charges did, in a still-unraveling underworld conspiracy of Lynchian proportions. The abstruse allure of the Black Camel has lost none of its sheen. Certainly Milton would have accused Eriksson of traveling in the path of misunderstanding.
Seldom has the association between motor and mortality been made as explicitly and brashly devout as at the funeral of artist Ed Keinholz. In 1994, his widow Nancy Reddin Kienholz drove her husband’s enormous corpse into his grave in a brown 1940 Packard blaring a tape loop of Glenn Miller. After she crawled out of the hole—things didn’t get that Egyptian—he was buried in the car, sitting in the passenger seat, equipped with a single dollar, a deck of cards, and a 1931 bottle of Chianti. The ashes of his dog Smash lay in the trunk. I wonder if Nancy’s dress got dirty. I wonder how long the music was allowed to play—if the heavy thud of the earth on the hood added a percussive punctuation to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “That Old Black Magic.” Or even better, “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” The closest I imagine I’ll come to hearing that noise was crouching in that Avalon bus, brushing the crust off the Black Camel sign and hearing my broken lung breathe the stale, underground air. If not exactly intimates, I feel I have a certain relationship with that enigmatic animal. Or have I failed to understand the message?

A Trial in Our Native Town.

•October 1, 2008 • 1 Comment

An essay about The Savage Rose, written while still intoxicated by the Wrist and Pistols’ adventures in Denmark. Several months after our tour there, the Danish government and Volkswagen, Inc. flew a few of us out to DJ a party, and then all our pals from Copenhagen came to play an East Coast tour with us. Heady days.

Published in The Crier, Summer 2006 issue, just after Thomas Koppel’s death. That seems a long time ago.


If you’re drunk and hungry in Copenhagen past the hour of 10 pm, you have exactly two options: falafel; or my preferred choice, doner kebab—what Americans call schwarma, and which appears not merely in pita, but in pizza and other exotic forms. Good luck finding anything else; the food service industry in Denmark’s capital caters to its thriving and sizeable Arab and Turkish populations. My staggering steps and useless vocabulary of only the filthiest Danish curses have proven surprisingly small obstacles on the path to the Spinning Tower of Night-Meat, so on one bitter spring night last year, I anticipated only the usual terse, mumbling exchange with the local doner-man. This time, however, I was exposed immediately, much to the delight of my Danish friends, as an American. “I like most Americans,” the proprietor explained, in perfect English. “I’m Iraqi, which makes us brothers. We bleed each other over nothing, like stupid brothers. Danes and Arabs just ignore one another—that’s much worse.”
In the last five years Denmark has changed rapidly, from the freethinking, liberal beacon of Northern Europe into a country increasingly bowed under the ugly weight of a reactionary, isolationist agenda intended to quell immigration and dismantle revered social(ist) experiments like the pioneering squat-city Christiania. The recent furor over 12  doltish Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, commissioned by Jyllands-Posten, the high-circulation conservative newspaper of the northern city Århus, is but one consequence of a once-progressive country’s mincing shuffle from blind-eyed disregard toward fiery xenophobia. Despite a popular hip-hop single proclaiming that “Århus is mega-fucking street”—sung to the tune of Madness’ “Our House”—Århus is viewed by the youth of the capital as little more than a provincial maritime/college town. Still, whether justified or not, many people the world over (and not only Muslims) have attributed the affront to the tiny nation as a whole.

It wasn’t always this way, musically or politically. The Savage Rose, arguably Denmark’s most famous and beloved band, and certainly one of its longest-lived, shot to prominence—and notoriety—in the late ’60s on the twin engines of radical political activism and seismic, alchemical freedom-prog. What other band can boast (or threaten, as the case may be) invitations to play both PLO events in Lebanese refugee camps and Black Panther rallies (including a benefit for incarcerated mayoral candidate Bobby Seale)? What other rock group has made a gospel record with a jazzman of the stature of Ben Webster (see 1972’s luminous Babylon)? Not one I can think of, and these are Danish hippies we’re talking about here.
Their history is the stuff of Scandinavian legend: unfussy, bold, and remarkably mercurial, though buttressed by a consistent aesthetic and conceptual unity. Inspired by the antiwar movement and nascent Copenhagen squat culture—along with those titanic and ubiquitous catalysts, the Stones and Dylan—composer and child prodigy Thomas Koppel (son of celebrated composer Herman D. Koppel) decided in 1967 to stop “fighting those big black grand pianos” at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in order “to move down to the street.” He recruited a band that included his artist brother Anders as organist and lyricist, his then-wife Maria on harpsichord (which doubled as their baby’s changing-table) and Alex Riel, Denmark’s top-rated jazz drummer. (Counting Koppel’s own virtuosic piano, that makes three keyboards.) Guitarists and bassists came and went, as they are wont to do. The first two, Nils Tuxen and Jens Rugsted, were drafted from a beat/R&B combo (perhaps Denmark’s first) called the Dandy Swingers, along with their dynamic and absolutely singular frontwoman, the 18-year-old Annisette, who came to define the band’s sound as much as their signature spectral, submarine organ did.
Their eponymous debut, a kind of Scandinavian perversion of the Zombies, Jefferson Airplane and early Floyd, only way, way jazzier and spookier, roared to the top of the Danish charts in 1968, vying with Sgt. Pepper’s and supported by an earth-shaking public debut at Tivoli, the amusement park and gardens in the heart of Copenhagen. In 1969, poised for success in the States, Savage Rose nailed a slot between Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown at the Newport Jazz Festival—feeling, as Thomas once said, “like a very small hot dog in a very big hamburger. The following year, they refused a lucrative contract with RCA when the label suggested they play for American troops in Vietnam.
By the mid-’70s, they had completed their two masterpieces, the searing psych-soul epic In the Plain (1969) and the influential, largely instrumental ballet score Dødens Triumf
(The Triumph of Death) (1972). Taken together, the two records demonstrate the band’s entwined mastery of American vernacular forms and contemporary classical concepts. Shortly after releasing Dødens Triumf, Savage Rose abandoned both commercial recording and the English language, retreating back underground to play political rallies, release ultra-limited private-press records and write in Danish, only to reemerge to much fanfare in 1995 with a new album and public persona. Last I heard, they were living in L.A., hanging and recording in Mick Jagger’s mansion.

Any discussion of Savage Rose will almost certainly highlight Plain and Triumf; each offers a convenient amalgam of the disparate styles in the group’s rangy repertoire. And any discussion of In the Plain, their first major work, necessitates a discussion of their diminutive one-name vocalist, who personifies both the feverish intensity of the band’s delivery and attitude as well as the fervor of their appetite for assimilating unexpected musical influences. Famously described by Lester Bangs as reminiscent of  “Grace Slick at 78rpm,” and even more aptly as “Minnie Mouse on a belladonna jag,” Annisette ranks high in the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll singers, up there in that inimitable, scary strata with Captain Beefheart and Mark E. Smith: invasive, impossible-to-ignore voices that inspire either worship or disgust. Equal parts terrifying and sublime, her voice veers without warning from a piercing squall to a cartoonish vibrato down to a creepy, childish whisper. Enamored with diametrically opposed divas Aretha Franklin and Edith Piaf, her keening style offers a weird mutation and grotesque extrapolation of the tropes of American soul, gospel and jazz on the one hand, and European art song and folk music on the other. To me, she sounds maybe how Carla Thomas would have if Papa Rufus had swapped his Funky Penguin costume for a Snarling Werewolf suit. Mostly, she doesn’t sound quite human, but that’s a response, I think, not just to her freakish timbre and range but to the sheer force of her voice. It’s hard to believe anyone could possible believe so vigorously in the power of the human voice as a tool of transmission.
The first shock of In the Plain arrives in opener “Long Before I Was Born,” when after the pounding, barrel(art)house piano intro, Annisette’s witchy voice, shrilly declamatory for 12 measures, suddenly launches into the stratosphere. Before you know it she’s singing about reading of her own murder in the paper and suggesting the listener lie to his or her lovers. She holds back somewhat for the next two numbers, both slow-burning psych swingers, until we’re hit with the furious, protean “Ride My Mountain (Jade),” our first exposure to the muscularity and expansiveness of the band’s three-keyboard attack. Dueling guitars struggle to swim out of the din of piano slab, organ drone and harpsichord twinkle, and by the time you reach the anthemic coda, suddenly you’re listening to something transcendent, anchored only by Riel’s loose-limbed, syncopated drumming. This descending coda structure is repeated brilliantly for “The Shepherd and Sally,” but it arises out of a pastoral English folk setting instead of the boogie chug of “Ride My Mountain”’s boogie chug. Ambient tone poem “God’s Little Hand”—with its crashed calliope, watery organ and chillingly intimate (and at four brief lines, sparse) vocals—predicts and one-ups New York art-stars Gang Gang Dance’s entire career in the span of two minutes. It’s the first substantial bite of Thomas Koppel’s avant-garde classicism on the record and tellingly it points not just forward, but also backwards, to Chopin’s “Sunken Cathedral.” The album’s final song, the ambitious seven-minute “A Trial in Our Native Town,” pushes the thicket of growling guitars to the front of the mix, with looming stabs of thick keyboard dissonance. Lumbering, doomy and impossibly heavy, this is nothing if not metal, a blistering, outraged indictment of Scandinavian solipsism, politically and culturally as relevant today as in 1969. Annisette spits out the memorable couplet, “The fields are heavy with dust/ Remember the smell from your City Lost?,” after urging a lover (the listener) to forsake “the landscape behind [his] fingertips” and to “just roll on from [his] native town.”

Written as a score for a ballet based on Ionesco’s Surrealist play The Triumph of Death and danced by the Danish Royal Ballet for seven straight years of sold-out performances, Dødens Triumf is a quite different beast. Koppel, who had prior experience writing for opera and theater, began work on the project in 1970 and finished two years later, with a work that equates Ionesco’s mysterious disease with sinister rumblings about a fascist European Union. (The record sleeve, signed “F. Fanon (the condemned here on Earth),” enjoins the reader—in Danish—to “abandon this Europe, with its endless talk about mankind, while it murders people everywhere, on every street corner, in every corner of the world.”) The recorded version became Savage Rose’s most popular album in Denmark, selling about 200,000 copies. It’s a measure both of the band’s cult status and ’70s Danish liberality that an instrumental classical/prog soundtrack with improvisational elements—there are only two vocal tracks and just one with lyrics—could achieve that level of success.
Dødens Triumf builds on a handful of repeated themes, refracted through a sort of genre prism: airy harmonica blues (“De unge elskende”) give way to musette waltzes (“Bruden pyntes”), moments of Morton Feldman-like minimalist calm (“Borgerens død”) and reeling, prog-rock rave-ups (“Bryllup”). It’s a wonderfully spacious record, helmed by Alex Riel’s remarkably sensitive and understated percussion. Even the careening organ ostinatos and piano arpeggiations of opening track “Byen vågner” melt into chiaroscuro, transforming into the melancholy “De unge elskende.” The austere “Soldaternes død” is a stuttering, pointillist drum solo that gradually builds to “Dear Little Mother,” the only track featuring Annisette singing words. By this point, she and Koppel had married, ousting his ex Maria and adding a new guitarist and bassist; in the liner notes, Annisette is credited first, but with no specific contribution, while the other musicians’ names appear with instrument details. When we finally hear that jagged voice, though, it’s climactic—we get only four folksy stanzas, repeated twice, each interrogating a different character about “what’s in [his/her] bag.” The answers—Mother has “chocolate and sweets”; Mr. Postman has “a note from your beloved”; Mr. Tailor has “the finest wedding dress”; and Mr. Harvester’s got “solitude and death”—are delivered laconically, without her usual theatrics. And then it’s over.
The record, as a whole, radiates bleariness—the changes are so subtle and the playing so fluid that’s it’s difficult to calibrate exactly what’s happening. The scale never becomes clear. By turns magisterial and miniature, exultant and lonesome, the listener’s spatial sense is repeatedly disoriented. That’s a good thing, I think, and one Danes and Americans alike would be wise to embrace. Despite distance and the disparity of our nations’ sizes and interest in global influence—not to mention the disproportion between the Danish cartoon scandal and the U.S. government’s policy of war-mongering—we suddenly find ourselves both challenged by international opinion. As Americans, our dominant and ubiquitous global culture can cause nearsightedness. We have a tendency to view ’60s and ’70s pop-cultural radicalism through the lens of our own accomplishments, with Dylan as the poet laureate and apotheosis of the movement. But beyond the obvious (and generally African American) exceptions—James Brown, Sun Ra, the Last Poets, the Fugs—American musicians of that era generally drew a stark line between experimental musical form and topical or politically transgressive lyrical content. (We can ascribe this mutual exclusivity to that generation’s devotion to the idea of traditional American folk forms as intrinsically political in nature, a notion cultivated by the triumvirate of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax.)
But the Savage Rose belongs to that rarefied international artistic community—along with Nigerian Fela Kuti and Brazilian tropicálistes Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso—for whom sociopolitical boundaries were as permeable and elastic as established sonic boundaries. Exposed to the double-din of American and indigenous music since childhood, they were free to invert, subvert and conflate sounds both foreign and native, thereby stumbling upon new, syncretic pop forms that echoed their cosmopolitan political extremism. Disorientation, getting lost and braiding together distant spaces and sounds, is their method and legacy. Thomas Koppel writes of the power of music—with typical, though endearing, heady idealism—largely in terms of place:

Eventually we did connect, on huge festivals and smoky jazz clubs; from fine white concert halls and royal theaters to sport arenas, dark streets, picket lines where my accordion was sometimes covered with snow so I couldn’t even feel my fingers, between sniper bullets in mountain refugee camps and slum churches filled with dancing hookers and pick-pockets. Wherever we were, the music opened up long-forgotten windows to the hearts, theirs as well as ours. Maybe it is true that music can’t change the world; but by opening these secret windows, it can certainly release energies in people that might someday change the world. On such an event, big or small, you just feel love. You feel your own love, and you feel everybody’s love. Everybody’s long-forgotten, mutual longings for a rich and meaningful life, freedom, happiness. I believe this is the only power strong enough to really change the world.

[Postscript: After writing this piece, I was astonished and saddened to hear that Thomas Koppel, founder, composer, and pianist of the Savage Rose, passed away on February 25, 2006, in Puerto Rico. At the time of his death, he was working on a new album, a play about Greenland, piano improvisations, and a book of poems. His funeral was held at Christians Church in Copenhagen on Saturday, March 11. He was 61.]