Sunday, October 9, 2011

Greil Marcus "The Old Weird America" (1998, 2001)

When you are looking into the cultural history of 20th century America, it doesn't take long before you run into the phrase "old weird America".  Here's where that nifty phrase originated.

The book is an examination of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, as seen through the prism of Bob Dylan & the Band's Basement Tapes.  Marcus examines the Basement Tapes recordings, & pulls through them the echoes of selections from Smith's Anthology.

I imagine that many readers are lost for large sections of this book, as comprehension requires a familiarity with both sets of source material.  Dylan fans would be by & large lost or uninterested in the material on the earlier folk records.  And the die-hard folk fans put off by the mythologizing of the Dylan recordings.

While I enjoyed the book on the whole, it seemed to suffer from a couple of common Boomer fallacies.

First, there is the mythologizing & overvaluing of Boomer cultural signifiers.  In this case, tapes of Dylan & the Band rehearsing or just jamming are treated as a sort of cultural UR text, which is supposed to speak to deep needs in the American psyche.  This seems to be the norm in texts about Dylan's career, so it is not unexpected.  And in fact, I'm sure that the Dylan connection was what secured the book deal, as publishers would be much more likely to fund analysis of Dylan's work over semi obscure folk records.

The second fallacy is treating the recordings from the Anthology as if they themselves are devoid of any cultural antecedent.  Because there are not prior commercial recordings, the material is treated as if it sprang into existence without any cause (save that of the talent of the musicians).  Not to downplay the talent involved, which was in fact quite impressive, but all of this material came from a tradition.  The recordings of the Anthology are merely an audio snapshot of that tradition at specific moments in time. 

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