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Recovery: Learning the Music of History.

by Jake Adam York
  

Twelve years ago, as a young writer whose Alabama accent suggested hidden motives to more than a few colleagues in our MFA program at Cornell University, I began to take my comfort in music. First, I turned to jazz, to discs my best friend, a college DJ, had given me, and then to the hard rock and heavy metal I’d played since high school, and finally to the roots music that would swell my shelves—box sets of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and stray cases of Charlie Patton and Son House. The jazz reminded me both of Sundays spent listening to my friend spin classics into the short radius of the campus airwaves and of the summer trips to New Orleans my family took each year. The rock recalled days water-skiing the Coosa River with high-school friends or punching guitars in someone’s basement. But the roots music dug more deeply, excavating mornings in my grandparents’ kitchen, where ancient country music bore through the crackle of bacon. As the winters set in, the music kept me warm, and as it kept me warm, it kept me comfortable, cocooned me in the sounds of home.

I Heard You Twice the First Time, by Branford Marsalis.I carried that warmth everywhere I went. On the coldest days, I’d press the earphones hard while Branford Marsalis’s I Heard You Twice the First Time (1992) wound onto a traditional holler, “Berta, Berta,” an a cappella chorus over cycles of crickets and cicadas. Nights, I could pile quilt on quilt, open wide the radiators and sweat to the sound, almost forgetting New York altogether.

The longer I lived there, the larger the library became, swelling to include all the Johnny Shines, Jimmie Rodgers, and Leadbelly I could find. And more and more what I took for the sounds of home became a home. I began listening to music I’d never liked before, either because everybody else liked it or because my father wore it thin. I turned to Hank Williams, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe. I even began to give new country half a chance.

One afternoon in my second year, I unwrapped the eponymous BR5-49, slid the disc into my player, then checked my speaker wires. The first seconds of the first track, “Even If It’s Wrong,” crackled like a record, dust popping from a turntable’s needle. Sure of all connections, I restarted the disc: static once again.

It was deliberate—the proper conceit for the debut of a band whose allegiances lay not with industry country-western but instead with early string bands and 50’s rockabilly—music that first appeared on acetate or vinyl and that, by and large, had not made it CD yet. It signaled a genealogy whose strongest roots tangle in an analog past oddly trogloditic and technological at once—the country limbo of Hee-Haw, the 70s country-music variety television show on which finger-picked banjos crossed electric telecasters and phone numbers still began with alphabetic exchanges, like BR5-49, the number for the show’s used car lot. The static was, I think, supposed to trigger my own nostalgia for the show, which I watched each week with my parents and then each night when reruns filled the local schedules, and for the tub-thumpin’, knee-slappin’, pickin’-and-grinnin’ numbers that were, ostensibly, anyway, the show’s main events. These opening seconds, this jewel-case insert featuring a rotary phone, and the name serving to indicate the band and the album and so being quietly repeated, these things were supposed to call like a grandmother to me and my generation and tell us to come back home and sit a spell.

The static recalled a thousand excitements, pregnant moments between the needle’s contact with the smooth edge and its descent into the vibrating hollers of Patsy Cline or the Louvin Brothers or the Carter Family. But this deliberated static, the residue of the analog, didn’t belong to BR5-49.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.The very next year, my Oxford American Southern Music Sampler arrived with “St. Louis Cemetery Blues,” a B-side by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a so-called “hot band” named for an old-fashioned candy bar. There, it would seem, the Zippers, not content with an initial haunting, lay an entire cut’s worth of static over the tune, trumping recherché orchestration—trumpet, trombone, banjo, tom-heavy drums, stand-up bass, violin and mandolin—by adding another instrument, the phonograph record. Though I had no doubt the song had been recorded the year before, it sounded, in so many ways, like the recovered and re-mastered 78 sides of Robert Johnson, the Hot Fives and Sevens, Louise Bogan and other early 20th century musicians then newly available on CD, digital recordings made from analog records, many of them either heavily-chipped acetate platters or the even older aluminum discs that had slowly corroded into silence.

Was the static, I wondered, some kind of homage? As it covered some of the orchestrated sound, was it, in some way, a sacrifice to the ghosts of the past, a voluntary loss to answer the loss of those small flecks of sound that lie under rust or swirl in warehouse and storehouse devils in those long-amputated towns on the edge of nothing? Was it, simply, a kind of kitsch? A new valence of nostalgia?

These recordings—the Zippers’ and BR5-49’s—never had to be pressed on vinyl. They were recorded digitally, mastered digitally, and reproduced digitally. They were burned into emulsions that would never acquire statics of their own through wear and age: scratches, however unlikely, would produce only sound-stopping diffraction. The rainbowed releases would only ever possess this one strangely static static.

On the one hand, this static seemed to record, more than anything else, the listening that went into producing this music in the first place. These musicians, working down toward a past that neither they nor the fans who buy the discs could have known directly, spent a lot of time listening, both to old records and to the digital copies that now circulate, complete with the static that can never be erased. Now, the new compositions, and new recordings the old music has inspired, preserved the pop and hiss of the media through which we have approached the original styles.

But it called us to listen as well. If it recorded any kind of listening, the static came to signal any listening, that of the producer or that of the consumer. That static, even if it only imagined the held-breath waiting for sound to emerge from the dark, asked us to be quiet, to negate as much as we could the rhythms of our respiratory and circulatory systems and tune ourselves toward another world that would emerge through sound from somewhere else. Through that static, we descend into the spiral valley of song.

And if the static kept, then it functioned as an audible membrane that separated the moment and situation of our listening toward that music from the moment of the music itself. The sub-static groove lay somehow beyond our reach, in the end, kept from us by decay or age. And so the music that incorporated the static into itself attempted to cover itself with or embed itself more deeply in time, to distance itself, somehow, from the contemporary. It sought, at least, to acquire the noise of history, or through that noise, the place of history.

BR5-49 by BR5-49.The static, however, had to be a signature. The hand must have been occupied elsewhere, performing other offices of recovery without which the static would overlay nothing, would be hollow, and would lead nowhere.

BR5-49’s instrumentation alone performed some recovery. The use of steel guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass signaled a return to what might be called “classic country.” But the more substantial salvage was audible in the cover songs. Almost half of the debut album’s tracks—five of the eleven—are covers. Johnny Horton’s “Cherokee Boogie” is the second cut, followed immediately by “Honky Tonk Song,” a Mel Tillis number recorded by George Jones. In the dead center of the list is “Crazy Arms,” a song performed most famously by Ray Price but offered as well by a half-dozen other luminaries, including Patsy Cline and Chuck Berry. This is chased by Mel Tillis and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never,” with Graham Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” blowing in the penultimate slot.

Covering is common in country music, whether to please an audience or signal one’s roots, to show what one can do or shape the context in which one wishes to be considered—and we might easily understand the presence of these covers on BR5-49 as performing all this work. “Crazy Arms” is a perennial favorite, surely an audience pleaser, but also a reference of a band’s influences. Taken together, the covers advertise the band’s intention to bracket the last several decades of country music, its desire to be considered a creature of the 50s. The performances themselves are conservative—there’s very little if any variation or update beyond the fact of a different voice. They serve to reactivate the past, not to argue with it, to situate themselves just beneath that opening static so there’s something to find when we begin to listen as the album asks us to.

Much of this, however, is inaudible. On BR5-49, the descent can’t be marked after we’ve moved from the opening seconds into the first track. Throughout the disc, the band’s original material is laid side-by-side with the cover, beneath the static, and so the distance between the 1950s and the 1990s is collapsed, and once one is inside the album, the distance we have to bridge becomes inaudible, almost non-existent. While it seemed the project of the album to enter history and make it audible, in the end, the project is instead the resituation of the present work, using the cover to obscure the temporal circumstance of the band’s own effort.

Much more interesting, entertaining, and challenging, as well as much more difficult, is the performance of a song in a way that makes audible that distance between past and present, that makes history audible—a cover in which the fine musical textures, rather than the broad recycling gesture, constitute a more complex relationship, one that requires a somewhat deeper consideration of attachment and secession. In such moments, the cover is both a more total static and a filter that can modulate that noise. The performance repeats the form of the original and rides over it to enable us to hear or prevent us from hearing the past in ways that are to be as meaningful as entertaining. To listen to such a cover is to read for both fidelity and disregard and to puzzle the value of the amplification or diminishment of a song’s historic qualities.

BR5-49 has approximated this only once, to my knowledge, in the live recording of “Knoxville Girl” that appears on the band’s Live From Roberts EP.

Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers.The song is traditional, stretching back, in some version, to the 17th century, where it’s rooted in a poem, a broadside ballad entitled “The Cruel Miller.” The poem drifted through the British Isles, where the story was known as, among other things, the Oxford Girl and the Wexford Girl, and then emigrated to America where it settled in the Appalachians and became known as “Knoxville Girl” in the mountains of east Tennessee. The song has now been recorded many times—by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, among others—but the most important recording is the one on the Louvin Brothers’ Tragic Songs of Life (1956) because this is, very likely, the recording that brought the song to wider attention and saved it from obscurity. It’s to this recording BR5-49’s responds.

The Louvin Brothers’ version, though markedly different from the original broadside poem—the song’s much shorter—presents the traditional circuit of the murder ballad from pleasant beginning to sudden, uncontrollable violence, to remorse and punishment. The song’s narrator begins by introducing the title character:

I met a little girl in Knoxville,
A town we all know well,
And every Sunday evening,
Out in her home I’d dwell.

Quickly, however, the narrator has, on an evening walk, struck this “fair girl down” and beaten her to death. He throws her body in the river then returns home where, bloody and aching, he dreams of hell. He wakes to be arrested and carried to jail where, at last, he expresses remorse for the killing in a way that gives the poem a moralistic cant, as if it’s meant to be a cautionary tale. There are twelve verses in all, executed in waltz time and sung in an unwavering melody that is, if nothing else, disturbingly sweet.

The BR5-49 version is, following the Louvins’, a waltz, and singers Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead harmonize like Charlie and Ira Louvin, in a hauntingly sweet melody. This fact alone makes the BR5-49 cover unique among the covers of this particular tune, for no one else provides a double-male harmony, and this is the auditory gesture that indicates the source of the tune.

This version, though, is not, as many of BR5-49’s covers, an exact repetition. This version is about twenty seconds shorter, having subtracted a number of verses. Whether the steel guitar solo is the cause of the emendation or only its witness, the BR5-49 version pauses between the stanza in which the narrator kills the girl and the stanza in which he throws her body into the river, managing to heighten the song’s emotional tension. After we’re told that he “only beat her more / Until the ground around her / Within her blood did flow,” the steel guitar takes the melody for a full 40 seconds, during which we can, if we know the Louvins’ version, almost hear the stanzas in which the body is disposed and the narrator returns home. These verses seem suppressed, and it’s a kind of relief, a respite from violence that allows the story to drown in melody. However, when the harmony returns, the narrator is just throwing the body into the stream, and what seemed a relief now reads as a serious pause, a catching of breath between the murder and the cleanup. To me, anyway, this version is even more violent because it provides a space in which emotion and drama can build.

You can listen to and enjoy this tune even if you don’t know it’s a cover, and I think you can still read the tune in a similar way. However, the subtractions, which I read as momentary suppressions and dramatic enactions, and which make the song read more quickly, can only be measured against the earlier version. If we hear the Louvins straining to throw the murdered woman into the river as BR5-49’s Don Herron translates vocal into string melody, the newer version acquires a depth it could not achieve on its own.

American Recordings by Johnny Chas.Perhaps it’s unfair to ask a band as young as BR5-49, a band so recently arrived though clearly hoping to sound much older, to achieve something so difficult that so few performers seem capable of one, much less a stream of such songs. But BR5-49 arrived at an interesting time in country music, when roots music and classic country seemed to be resurging in a swell that made possible new ways of thinking about history in and through music.

The release that had the most serious impact, on my thinking anyway, was Johnny Cash’s 1994 American Recordings, a disc that signaled both a serious change in Cash’s career and the materialization of a major and long-brewing change in American music.

The importance of the disc to Cash’s career cannot be overstated. Though Cash released at least one record a year from 1957 to 1988, in the latter years of the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s, many of these records were compilations or anthologies, best-of records, the kind of records that, in many cases, announce the slowing of a musical talent, the end of a career. Cash had, in the very early 90s, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and given a Grammy Legend Award—again, recognitions that usually read as valedictions. The release of American Recordings, however, seemed to turn all that around. As Cash himself allows in his autobiography (Cash, by Johnny Cash), he found himself, in the early 90s, ready to leave record companies behind for good, having watched his status at Mercury/Polygram slowly deteriorate. Rick Rubin convinced Cash to try again, with him, and the result was an album that brought Cash many new fans, that opened larger concert venues, addressed his music to young listeners, and earned him Rolling Stone’s Best Country Artist and Comeback of the Year awards in 1995. The album’s success galvanized the relationship between Cash and Rick Rubin, and that made for a cartload of amazing music in the nine years before Cash died in 2003. The albums are still emerging from the vaults.

Cash’s tunes possessed the radios of my childhood—tinny AM channels squealing through the metronome of my grandparents’ percolator, and the knobless pick-up, dual-band console in my father’s truck—and I thought I knew Johnny Cash. I still listened to the Sun recordings and the legendary prison concerts of the late 60s, but I, too, thought Cash was winding down. The American label, the inverted American flag tucked into the pre-release advertisement, made me curious at first, then covetous. Rubin’s American label descended from Def American, the venture that published the Beastie Boys and death-metal’s Slayer, artists whose music I loved as well. To see a silver-gelatin Cash advertised under American’s star-spangled banner begged the question: How does Cash sound under a label most often associated with aggressive youth music?

The disc’s first track, “Delia’s Gone,” provided the answer. The song begins:

Delia, O Delia,
Delia all my life,
If I hadn’t’ve shot poor Delia,
I’d’ve had her for my wife.
          Delia’s Gone,
          One more round,
          Delia’s Gone
.

This is the territory of the American murder ballad, an arresting crossing of tenderness and violence. The song is, nevertheless, not all finesse. The second verse turns directly toward what can only be a calculated murder:

I went up to Memphis
And I met Delia there,
Found her in her parlor
And I tied her to her chair.
          Delia’s Gone,
          One more round,
          Delia’s Gone.

This seems much more disturbing than the fantastic, biblical apocalypse that was Slayer’s stock in trade and, in its own way, more energetic than the Beastie Boys’ old-school-rap stichomythia. That Rubin should produce and release this at the very moment the label was changing from Def American, whose name signaled its allegiance to youth music with one foot on the street, to American, whose name suggests a broader range of interest and address, is telling: Cash is all that has come before deepened.

The deepening is structured on the play between the contemporary consciousness, the contemporary directness of the song, and the song’s traditional musical and narrative roots. Much of this can be heard directly, as the song returns from increasingly bolder narration with increasingly contemporary vocabulary in the verses to the stable, traditional foot of the balladic refrain. So, the third verse goes:

She was low-down and trifling,
She was cold and mean,
Kind of evil make me want
To grab my submachine.
          Delia’s Gone,
          One more round,
          Delia’s Gone.

The arrival of the submachine is startling. Before, much of the song’s lexical surface is studiously antique, from the vocative “O Delia” to the identification of her room as her “parlor” and the characterization of her as “trifling,” and perhaps even the Memphis locale, which somehow always seems to evoke the past. The submachine gun, though, is decidedly contemporary, a creature of gangsta rap, not country music. Its appearance, however, has only time enough to ripple, for the refrain quickly re-establishes cool tradition.

This tension between the audibly contemporary and the sound of age manifests a much deeper play with the long and tangled history of an American ballad, known either as “Delia,” “Little Delia” or “Delia’s Gone,” a tension embedded in Cash’s 1994 performance.

The song or class of songs is based on an actual lover’s quarrel that ended in murder on Christmas Day, 1900, in Savannah, Georgia. One version was recorded in 1935 in the Bahamas, another in Atlanta as early as 1940. Variations would later be offered by Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Short, Bob Dylan, and many others. Some, following Blind Willie McTell, tell a whole story, from initial slight to the final sentencing of the killing lover, while others visit only episodes, providing a few verses to suggest the rest. All instances agree that Delia’s lover shot her dead, though not why—some suggest she cursed him, some that she left him, some that she was a whore and he was her pimp—and all carry some version of a refrain that’s something like “Delia’s gone / One more round / Delia’s gone” or “I shoot / One more rounder’s gone.”

Original Sun Sound of Johnny Cash.Even Cash did the song once before, for the 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash. Even though it’s different from the 1994 version, considered against the field, even the ‘62 approach is oddball. It is highly episodic, offering comparatively little in the way of narrative. But what’s more conspicuous is that what we have records, solely, the killer’s point of view. The Nassau String Band version, recorded in 1935, and the Blind Willie McTell version, recorded in 1949, allow us to hear the killer speak at times, but the narrator is omniscient, able to visit any of the characters involved. Cash’s 1962 version, by contrast, is severely contracted, and its fragmented narration produces another kind of limit that may reflect the partiality of the killer’s account.

The 1962 version doesn’t answer any of the narrative questions we might have—like why Delia’s lover killed her—so the shift of person doesn’t expand the story in any particular way. Instead, it transposes the Delia tragedy into the shapes of the Appalachian murder ballad. As in the Louvin Brothers’ “Knoxville Girl,” the murder occurs early in the song—in the second verse:

First time I shot her,
Shot her in the side.
Hard to watch her suffer,
But with the second shot she died.

In the third and fourth verses, the narrator suggests that Delia was favored by many others and that he had decided he didn’t want to marry her, but these things are quickly forgotten as the song makes its inexorable progress to the jail where it will meditate on punishment and remorse, staples of the Appalachian murder ballad. So, the sixth and seventh verse enter despair more deeply:

But Jailer, O Jailer
Jailer, I can’t sleep
Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
          Delia’s gone
          One more time
          Delia’s gone

So you give me my hammer
I’ll drag the ball and chain
And every rock I bust
I seem to ring out Delia’s name
          Delia’s gone
          One more round
          Delia’s gone.

The song performs, perhaps overperforms, its sorrow, as the refrain is repeated and punctuated with further calls to Delia as the tune fades, suggesting perpetual self-punishment like the castigation that closes the Louvins’ “Knoxville Girl.”

The 1994 recording is much bolder and departs further from the body of Delia recordings, entering the persona of the killer much more fully and escaping the orbit of the traditional murder ballad, refusing to occupy the offices of remorse with such sincerity. Here, again, Cash provides the verse in which the narrator shoots Delia in the side, then again, and, as in the 1962 version, we move quickly to the jail. This time, however, Cash omits the further characterizations of Delia as a woman with many callers or a potential ball-and-chain, so the violence is even more inexplicable. He still hears the patter of Delia’s feet, but remorse is far from mind as the song closes:

So if you’re woman’s devilish,
You can let her run,
Or you can bring her down
And do her like Delia got done.

Some of the longer versions show the killer in his cell “drinking from a silver cup” (McTell), suggesting this lack of remorse, but nowhere is this character bolder than in Cash’s imagination, which seems to reject as much as accept the influence of tradition.

Few listeners know the Delia tradition well enough to begin to imagine the permission and rejection that shape Cash’s composition. But the song’s real triumph is that the discontinuity of or apparent contradictoriness within the song’s verbal and emotional textures—moving between antique and contemporary language and between remorse and dark pride—produced by the struggle with and against the tradition, are significant in and of themselves and audible to even the most untutored listener, provided he or she listens well. This is to say, Cash found a way to embody in sound the depth and fracture of history that gives the song a sense of enormity and power, even if a listener doesn’t know the entire archaeology.

6:66 Satan's Child by Danzig.Not every song can present such an auditory palimpsest, but it’s not necessary for every song to do such work. In the case of Cash’s 1994 American Recordings disc, the discontinuities and complexities of “Delia’s Gone” constitute a pattern not for each of the songs but for the album as a whole. Nine of the thirteen tracks are written by others. Some of the songs arrive from expected sources that express Cash’s country origins, as with “Why Me Lord,” provided by Kris Kristofferson. Others, however, come from outlying counties of popular music. “Down There By The Train” only barely betrays the harder rock of Tom Waits’ roots-inflected song-craft, and “Thirteen,” a song written Glen Danzig, former frontman of the legendary punk outfit The Misfits delivers all the melodrama that marks heavy metal from rock. But Cash is able to make each song his own, tying together disparate personal and generic tendencies with the instrument that has come to signify history most consistently, his voice.

The voice is so strong, it even seems to reverse the paths of history at times. “Thirteen,” for example, was first recorded by Cash, having been tendered by Danzig at Rick Rubin’s request. Only later, five years later, did Danzig raise his own voice into those lyrics, on the album 6:66 Satan’s Child. But the struggle isn’t Cash’s to naturalize Danzig’s tune; the struggle is Danzig’s to reclaim it. The track appears at the close of Danzig’s twelve-track fantasmagoria but, despite its self-conscious nihilism—“The list of lives I’ve broken reach from here to hell”—the performance is subdued, constrained by the precedent of Cash’s own implacability. Danzig’s trademark caterwaul is conspicuously absent, so he almost talks the song; if there’s any difference between this reperformance and Cash’s, it’s ultimately not one of tone or approach but volume, as if one could insist one’s way out of history.

Cash reverses the order of things again in a recording of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on American V: A Hundred Highways, which may be the last of the American series, appearing almost three full years after his death.

This song, like “Delia’s Gone” has a long foreground. Under various titles, including “God Almighty’s Gonna Cut You Down,” “Run On For A Long Time,” and more simply “Run On,” the tune has been something of a minor gospel standard for decades. The Golden Gate Quartet recorded “God Almighty Is Gonna Cut You Down” for its 1947 album Atom and Evil, and Bill Landford and the Landfordaires recorded it again, shortly thereafter, in 1949 (a version sampled by Moby on Play). Odetta’s version appeared on her 1956 Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, and Elvis recorded it as “Run On” for his 1967 How Great Thou Art. More recently The Blind Boys of Alabama offered “Run On For A Long Time” on its 2001 album Spirit of the Century.

Cash’s take on this tune, which is credited as “Traditional,” is the second track on A Hundred Highways. It’s not even the first cover, as it follows a version of Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” and it’s not the last, as Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” are close behind. But “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is the album’s standout, for many of the reasons “Delia’s Gone” was so powerful.

American V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny Cash.The lyrics, which suggest a round with frequent return to an extended refrain, are nearly spoken, delivered with an almost tired composure. Some have remarked, in recent years, that Cash’s voice has sounded tired or brittle in these last recordings, but here the ease seems to register the fact that, outside Odetta’s version, the song is usually delivered entirely in harmony, several voices combining the whole way through. Even in Elvis’s version, a strong chorus haunts his lead all the way through the song, refusing him too much vocal leeway. Cash performs here as if in a chorus, as if working in a narrowed range between other voices, so we can almost hear the evensong of Bill Landford’s delivery.

Just so, the song’s instrumentation testifies to the its choric background. A slide guitar, maybe two, keep the central melody, while another’s fingerpicked to open the chords’ notes, as if making them available for late-arriving harmonizers. The percussion as well doubles itself and offers multiple avenues to the governing rhythm. Kick drums keep the bars, while hand-claps imply the gathering of a prayer meeting or a quartet. So, the tripling or quadrupling in the Golden Gate Quartet version, Bill Landford’s version, and the Blind Boys of Alabama version enters the song, keeping close company with Cash’s paces.

But Cash’s reach engages history, allows it, without being appropriated by it. And so his voice rises once, when his line departs from tradition. Each version narrates a direct command from Jesus to preach God’s anger to various sinners. Usually the first transit from verse to refrain passes through the lines: “Then he put one hand upon my head / Great God Almighty, let me tell you what he said.” Cash’s version, however, goes this way: “He called my name, and my heart stood still / When he said John, go do my will....” Cash’s voice rises on his own name, creating in the song a moment of self-recognition as Cash performs both his own part and that of Christ and so, in a sense, calls his own name, a moment in which Cash, with one foot keeping time with history, also steps into the moment of his own performance.

This is where Cash asserts his own artistry, the prerogative of the performer, and exceeds the boundaries of tradition. And perhaps paradoxically, Cash creates a moment in which his performance seems almost antecedent to any of the historically prior recordings since it could just as well be a moment that has not yet been regulated by repetition rather than one that exceeds that repetition. Taken together with the carefully rooty guitar orchestration and the country-church hand-clapping, it’s hard to say what, exactly, is the sound of 2003 or 2006 or 1935: the mixing is seamless, but the moment of self-identification breaks the form and curls like a signature to tie the rest into a moment that belongs to the singer, wherever he belongs.

Cash’s five records for American and the four discs of material brought forth in the Unearthed box set develop a space between nostalgia, which wishes from a distance or simply denies the distance at which a present life is lived, and what I would call aftertude, a demonstrated escape from the past, however supportive—an escape that increasingly valorizes the creativity, the reforming power of a younger artist while showcasing the wisdom of that artist’s attention to his or her forebears.

Red Headed Stranger by Carla Bozulich.This is the wonder that is Carla Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger (2003), a song-by-song remake of Willie Nelson’s 1975 classic concept album. The original was an interesting species of historical reconstruction, a cycle built on a folk tale created by Nelson to situate songs written in traditional forms, like waltzes, at a time when the country music at large seemed to be losing touch with its roots. And Bozulich’s reconstruction participates in such staged nostalgia, in simple gestures, like the inlay tableau of molded plastic children’s toys, and in more impressive arrangements, such as the feat of getting Nelson himself to appear on three of the album’s tracks.

But if Nelson’s presence secures the relationship between the present effort and the precedent endeavor, it does nothing at all to constrain or even to definitively locate Bozulich’s recreation, which veers quickly and often into the high relief of her own emotional landscapes. For example, as Bozulich, in the third track, reprises the “Time of the Preacher” theme, per Nelson’s sequence, the instrumental and the vocal textures become more densely grained and distended, as violin bows and vocal cords scrape over light distortion and persistent, seething feedback. The track doesn’t, as it might, simply signal the return of one of the tale’s major figures. It is more importantly and more audibly an apotheosis of the remembrance that produces the album. Bozulich seems to reach for the next note, the next bar, and the song’s time retards, as if to allow a recovery, then quickens toward the next crisis; altogether, the song seems to reach back, toward Nelson’s original, as if the musician is working without a chart, trying to hear her way back to the plan.

Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson.Just so, at large, Bozulich’s revisitation of Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger seems aware of itself as such—it announces or performs this self-awareness in its aftertude—to such an extent that its self-awareness assures its difference, its independence, and its status as a thing in itself. The goal of Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger is not, it seems, to contest, challenge, stand beside, or even directly approach Nelson’s. Instead, it seems determined to follow, using the original as a benchmark, trading on the stability of the first iteration toward its own development. Bozulich’s album exists in an afterness that allows the music to become something else, something new: freed of the burden of maintaining the form of the original, the musical effort can be invested toward the development of Bozulich’s own style, the highly expressivist seethe that unfolds like napalm in winter on her subsequent release Evangelista.

In his poem “Elegy for the Southern Drawl,” Rodney Jones writes:

I feel odd hearing a tape of my own voice
That marks wherever I go, the sound

Of lynchings, the letters of misspellings
Crooked and jumbled to dupe the teacher,
Slow ink, slow fluid of my tribe, meaning

What words mean, when they are given
From so many voices, I do not know myself
Who is speaking and who is listening.

Jones expresses in these lines better than I have and better than I could the experience of being an audible Southerner in America. From those first days in Ithaca, New York, I found my own history, written in the drawling tones of my own voice, dogged me, answering to everyone’s call but my own. I wanted so badly, hearing what others heard issuing from my throat, to step away from my own history, or to stand on top of it, so I could look out in new directions and, maybe, learn to sing a different song.

In those moments, I searched for something like Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger, an album which I still envy, wishing for both the confidence and the mastery that would allow me, in my life and in my writing, to discover the particular formation of history I could form into the ideal foundation for my future, that would support the architecture of my aspiration. When I began listening to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and BR5-49, I was looking for this, a kind of aftertude that would free me from my history and give me power to use it rather than be used by it. But in those albums, I found gestures, not poetics, and so I shelved them, as I shelve Bozulich’s Red Headed Stranger.

Cash, though, is perpetual rotation. The jewel cases crowd the CD player. The list of his songs is among the longest in my iPod. Not a week goes by without some Cash, and I’ve taken to the work so completely, I’ve tried to get my colleagues to adopt the name as a term for excellence, as in “That is so Johnny Cash.”

Cash’s work carries, for me, the lesson of a quiet confidence, a trust in one’s ability to stand surrounded by a past without being overwhelmed by it, and a knowledge of one’s place and a sense that history is not something that can be exceeded, something one can escape through insistence. Rather, it provides the chords we must harmonize.

Unchained by Johnny Cash.What I learned in New York, what I forever relearn, is that, though my accent is not terribly thick or deep, it remains so steadfastly I can never escape my origins enough to have an aftertude, and I question too much to find a quiet home in a neighborhood of the past. More and more I live in an in-between, and I listen to Cash, not just for comfort, but for prayer as well.

Tonight, I’m listening to Cash’s “Southern Accents,” a Tom Petty tune on the second American album, Unchained. I keep replaying one verse in particular:

There's a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And she kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me.

I got my own way of praying
But everyone's begun
With a Southern accent
Where I come from.

Tonight, I hope that somehow I too can blend my voice with the bygone, in the ghost choruses of culture, and yet raise it when called to answer, to be able to say, with strength, “I’ve got my own way of talking,” yet listen rightly, if the voice that gives me voice should say, in some way, Go do my will.

 

Jake Adam York is an Alabama native now living in Denver, where he teaches for the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. His first book of poems, Murder Ballads, was published in November 2005 by Elixir Press.
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Carla Bozulich

BR5-49

Johnny Cash (and Here and Here and Here)

Danzig

Hee-Haw

The Louvin Brothers

Branford Marsalis

Willie Nelson

Squirrel Nut Zippers
  

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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