Lexias: Old, Weird

By Matthew Cheney

One of my favorite descriptions of just about anything is Greil Marcus's description of Bob Dylan's bootleg "basement tapes" as harking back to "the old, weird America" of the songs collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music records. Marcus, in fact, titled his book about the basement tapes The Old, Weird America.

Within the science fiction community, there's been lots of discussion of The New Weird over the last decade, but listening to Smith's Anthology provides a more profoundly weird experience than any I've ever had with fiction. Part of this is the result of early recordings—they sound so different from anything recorded today that it is impossible to assimilate their sounds into our brains. Old texts may be odd in their diction or syntax, but we still provide the voice in our heads with which we hear them. Old records are like artifacts beamed to our ears from Mars.

In 1951, when Harry Smith put the Anthology together from his immense collection of 78 rpm records, he said oddity was a criterion for selection—he was explicitly looking for the weird. To the original performers, though, these songs and performances weren't weird at all; they were familiar. They seemed strange to people from other places because they were items of local culture, created and shared in a world that had not yet been homogenized by movies and television and mass market advertising.

Even the most isolated communities, though, were not sui generis or without influence from other communities. Harry Smith tried to show some of the patterns between songs that had been segregated by the assumption that they could only appeal to a certain audience. For instance, there are few if any indicators in the liner notes to the Anthology of any performer's race, which may seem unremarkable to us now, but many of the records Smith took songs from had originally been marketed racially. In When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Robert Cantwell points out that not only did Smith give listeners the least possible information about race or region, he also made little note of the performers' sex, which was not always clear from either their names or performances. Cantwell writes that

[b]y confounding the familiar racial, regional, and sexual categories, or by cutting them so finely that they are reduced to a heterogeneous new substance, or by juxtaposing them with such violence, or such subtlety, that they tend either to paralyze or to mimic one another, the Anthology robs us of the handy frames in which we transport our folksong and presents it nakedly—or, rather, greets us after we have been stripped naked, intellectually speaking, so that we can't really conceive it at all. Instead, we must experience it directly, something utterly strange and yet, because it is made of things we know, hauntingly familiar, and because we can't readily form a conception of it—this must wait for years, if it is ever achieved at all—enact it, again and again, until we have relieved the neuralgia produced in our own soul when it resonates to its perceptions but cannot assemble the idea by which it integrates perception into the rest of its experience. (p. 221)

Blindness to regional, racial, economic, and sexual distinctions may sometimes be an excuse to ignore inequalities and injustices, but distinctions can calcify into unquestioned assumptions, reflexive "common sense," and invisible empires of stereotypes. Smith's decision to organize his Anthology primarily by sound liberated the recordings and opened them to audiences that would never have even known about them before.

But they're still very weird.

Weirdness is the antidote to homogenization. It thrives on the local and specific, but it can never only be local and specific, because then it would be inscrutable—it wouldn't transfer or travel, it wouldn't live. But it did live, and its iterations and transformations whisper their echoes to us still, just as they did to Bob Dylan and his compatriots in their secluded basement, jazzing around in 1967. Dylan's magpie genius, his absorption of so many streams of sound, led his lo-fi home recordings to seem like a pile of lost 78s. Many listeners have been most entranced by "I'm Not There (1956)," which finally got an official release on the soundtrack album of Todd Haynes's extraordinary film of the same title (minus the beguiling parenthetical date). The song is like a merging of Charley Patton and Henry Thomas, who as singers were devoted more to the sound of words than the words themselves. Nobody knows for sure what some of the words in "I'm Not There" are any more than people know for sure all of the words in a Henry Thomas song Dylan himself wrote a variation on, "Honey Won't You Allow Me One More Chance." Previous versions of Thomas's song have at least been transcribed, so educated guesses can be made, but "I'm Not There" is an emanation from Dylan's unconscious, utterly original and yet rich with the rhythms and tonalities of a century of previous music. What the words are doesn't really matter, though, nor do they particularly matter for Patton or Thomas or other singers who would have failed elocution classes but who had a sense of language far beyond that of milquetoasts with perfect enunciation—a sense of language as music and object, as pure, ragged, and beautiful sound.

My favorite recent recapitulation of the old, weird America is Brian Francis Slattery's novel Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America. Slattery is a musician with a strong knowledge of musics old and new, and has said, "Really, all of [Dylan's] Highway 61 Revisited is the theme album for Liberation, for its sneering anger and its bruised hope, its vision of America as a horrible, beautiful mess." Liberation presents us with a future infused with old weirdness, but more than that, it reveals all the channels and vibes that keep old whispers on the wind. The letters of its words are printed clearly, but the sentences often feel like lines in a song by Charley Patton or Henry Thomas, or apocryphal verses from "I'm Not There (1956)." Sense isn't necessarily at the forefront; music matters most of all. But there's plenty of sense there, too, and it's just as unblinking as the sense in all the old murder ballads and disaster songs that, once upon a time, spun through 78 revolutions per minute in a country founded on genocide and slavery.

Liberation is a book full of ghosts and history. Early in the story, a character has a dream of Abraham Lincoln: "I was a man of my time, Lincoln is saying, and thank God for that. If I had seen into the future, I would have done nothing at all. It would have seemed so futile. We must live in the present if we are to make what we will of history" (p. 61).

I can imagine Harry Smith saying something similar. He believed in magic and ghosts, as anybody who spends a life collecting old records should. Ghosts keep history present for us, just as Smith did when he put together his Anthology, its songs now made more ghostly by conversion from solid vinyl to the numinous bits that are the mp3 files haunting my computer. William Faulkner famously wrote that, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." The old, weird America shows us this—the longer we listen, the less weird it seems, the less old, and perhaps even the less American. Boundaries dissolve. Subject and object dance through each other.

The sounds infiltrate us. They are our ancestors. They are us.


Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.