Country blues

America's soft spot for the ambitious southerner

Published February 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Two days in Dublin, three in London and two names on everybody's lips:
Monica Lewinsky and Harry Smith. The former is ... well, you know who she is;
the latter is the visionary record collector responsible for assembling the
recently re-released 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music." The
former's face is on the cover of every news magazine; the latter's name comes
up in every music magazine. You might say that the only thing Monica
Lewinsky and the late Harry Smith have in common is that they both have
soft spots for a particular American icon: the ambitious Southerner. Which
may not sound like much, but those of us with similar soft spots know how many
evenings can be passed, how many books can be read, how many letters can be
written talking up the virtues and vices of these twang-talking American
dreamers who are so charismatic they cast even the most cold-hearted Yankee
under their spell. This figure is always changing faces. Sometimes he looks like President Clinton. Listening to the voices recorded in the 1920s and '30s on Smith's "Anthology," you might recognize him as Dock Boggs. Of course, the girls screamed the loudest when his name was Elvis Presley.

I'm not blaming Lewinsky for all the ribbing my American accent got
me from Irish cab drivers last week. Because, like her, I once fell for the
president. A president who is often compared to Elvis, a president
Secret Service agents call Elvis, a president whose Little Elvis is
the part of him I dread the most. Once the country gave up on Clinton (which
was about six days into his presidency), he required much defense. Years and
years as an Elvis fan was training enough. Anyone who knows all the words to
"Jailhouse Rock" learned long before the '93 inaugural how to stand up to bad
jokes about greasy food and racist slurs against non-Northern accents. And
while all the smartass comics were looking at pictures of Lewinsky and
bemoaning that the leader of the free world couldn't score a better class of
tail, anyone who's seen the wedding photos of the day the King married his
Queen could see a little Priscilla in Lewinsky's big black hair.

Still, I can't help rewriting a Beck lyric to evoke the dullest State of
the Union Address of Clinton's presidency: "I'm a bureaucrat baby, so why
don't you blow me?" What was that speech? Its concerns were so businesslike
it may as well have been the Kansas-flat ramble Bob Dole would have delivered
if he'd won the election last year. Where was our biblical charmer? Our
Arkansas poet? Where the hell was Elvis? I'm as thrilled as the next girl
the deficit's gone down. I realize that fact might mean real things to real
people. But a Clinton speech isn't supposed to be a tax seminar. It's
supposed to be a concert. I still have one of the songs from last year's
address stuck in my head. He spoke of racial healing as if it were possible.
He invoked Isaiah, asking us all to become something as weird and wonderful
as "repairers of the breech." All I am this year is less worried about the
fate of Social Security, which is comforting, not inspiring. This new
no-nonsense was all musically reenforced during one of the president's
Illinois stops the next day, where the soundtrack to an appearance was the
unfortunate Presley motto "Taking Care of Business."

Like I said, I'm not angry at Lewinsky. I'm not even angry at Clinton -- I
had his number sex-wise ages ago. And I'm certainly not self-hating enough
to loathe the press. I'm angry at America, or whoever those Americans are
who are answering opinion polls. You know, the polls that now tell us that
the president's approval ratings have never been higher. Where were you
approvers a few weeks ago when Clinton presided over the longest and most
intelligent press conference of his term, the one in which he spoke
eloquently of hopes and dreams while at the same time responding deftly to
terrifically precise questions about the diplomatic relations between Turkey
and Greece? Where were you when he addressed the nation with Old Testament
outrage and New Testament sorrow after the Oklahoma City bombing? And where
were you last fall, my fellow music fans, when he appeared on VH1 speaking
with so much feeling for real American achievement, showing us his old Ray
Charles albums and teenage home movies in which he jitterbugs to something
new called rock 'n' roll? You like him now? You like him with his
tail between his legs? You like him taking care of business?

I'm not saying I'm giving up on the man. Just like I'll hang in with Elvis
even when the E-haters bring up "Spinout" and druggy toilet death, I'll
let the dick-and-chick cracks roll off me. See, the fan of the ambitious
Southerner and other grand thinkers knows about the flip side of large-scale
dreaming: failure. And we don't just expect minor oopsie-daisies along the
lines of "Old MacDonald" or "I didn't inhale." No. We know that eventually
our hero will fuck up on a global scale and cause calamities that will be
photographed and recorded and remembered. We're talking before-and-after
pictures, Young Hot Elvis turning into Old Fat Elvis, Repairer of the Breech
becoming Blow Job of the Month. The more they get, the more they lose. Those
are America's rules.

Back to Britain: Because everyone was talking about Lewinsky, I talked
about her, too. Because everyone I talked with was a musician, the conversations turned to Harry Smith. One of the chats was with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who
was working on a record in Ireland. I had read in the great English music
magazine Mojo where he said that Smith's "Anthology" -- a six-CD set
featuring the above-named Boggs as well as dozens of even more obscure
performers with names like the F. Ming Pep-Steppers doing "Indian War Whoop"
or Chubby Parker offering "King Kong Kitchie" -- "creates an American world
that I always hoped existed."

When I asked Tweedy to map out that world, he said, "America sounds
like an experiment on those records. It sounds like some weird petri dish.
There are no preconceived notions of what music is supposed to sound like.
That's why early rock 'n' roll is folk music, or is so invigorating on a folk
music level. It doesn't have anybody involved in it that had any idea what
it was supposed to sound like. Howlin' Wolf didn't go into a recording
studio and say, 'We need this amount of compression on my voice for me to
sound like me.' They cut an acetate and they listened back to it and it
wasn't them. It didn't sound like them. It sounded like something better."

Something better. Isn't that what public work or public office is supposed
to be? A version of ourselves that's bigger, more daring, more impressive?
You get that out of reading the story of Dock Boggs while listening to his
records. The story of Boggs, as adapted into liner notes by Greil
Marcus from his book "Invisible Republic" on the gorgeously produced new
Boggs collection "Country Blues" (Revenant), is a parable of one man's
America, lost and found. The records of Boggs -- 12 songs are heard
here plus five alternate takes and four others by Boggs' Kentucky
contemporaries -- can be heard as an encyclopedia of transgression.

"The American fantasy of public mastery," Marcus writes, "contains a fantasy
of public suicide." It is very difficult this week to hear an intelligent,
aspiring, poor white man from the American South singing that "Pretty women
is a-troubling my mind" without feeling like you've bugged the White House.
Boggs accompanies himself on the banjo, an instrument of African origin that
can sound bright and bluegrass, though you'll forget that the second our hero
rakes his boney hands across its strings. The song he's playing is "Country
Blues," which is a title and a genre, not to mention a fact of life for an
ex-coal miner like Boggs. And coal black is his voice. And coal black are
the hearts of the men whose stories he doesn't tell so much as channel -- the
murderer in "Pretty Polly," the inmate in "New Prisoner's Song," the drunk in
"Sammie, Where Have You Been So Long?" These are the fables of fuck-ups,
though the darkest line on this darkest of records is the one in "Old Rub
Alcohol Blues" in which he says, "Have never worked for pleasure."

During the '20s, Boggs got to be a musician instead of a miner, making
records and entertaining crowds. This freedom did not last. The
Depression came. His wife thought his musicianing ungodly. Rediscovered in
the '60s, he gave interviews to folkie Mike Seeger that Marcus cites at
length. One telling anecdote recounts a book Boggs took to heart as a
teenager, "The Standard Book of Etiquette." When asked why a coal miner
would be practicing his manners, he replied, "I think a coal miner ought to
have a little sense, and know how to meet the public, and speak very good
English if he's to meet the king, or the president of the United States, he
ought to know how to conduct himself, and how to act, if he's figuring on
going into the White House."

Would that it were true. If Boggs were alive today, it's a seductive thought
to imagine him hauling that old banjo into the White House to play for the
man who lives there. But I wonder, would we see the prez as the singer or as
the song? Would Boggs recognize the president as kin, as a man like himself
who came from no place to become somebody? Or would he forsake his manners
book and stare the politician in the eye, moaning all those tales of fools
held captive to their evil choices? Luckily, Bill Clinton is a man with two
faces: We don't even have to choose.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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