Old, Weird America

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on June 24, 2010

Last week I finally picked up Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America, anticipating an informative stroll through the mystifying and dark underbelly of American history. I have long loved the phrase “old, weird America.” It evokes a lost subculture within American life of marginal people who made strange and alien art without even realizing it. The phrase exists as a counterpoint to the Official History of this country, which seems to unspool as the glaringly uninspiring story of acquisition and accumulation.

What I wanted from the book was a reconstruction of the strangeness that has always lurked just below the surface of American history. I knew the book was centered on Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, but I had read Lipstick Traces and I expected a similar feat: rather than regurgitating the entire history of the idea of radical freedom through the lens of the Sex Pistols, The Old, Weird America would trace a certain line of folk expression through our history. I also fully expected that some coherence would be sacrificed for a certain poeticism. When Marcus doesn’t know where to go next, his answer usually seems to be to just keep on piling up the words.

I ended up finding the book long on poetry and short on meaning. The Harry Smith Anthology is duly noted as source material, a handful of incidents that seemed to adduce a certain American penchant for sociopathic violence were dredged up (in Lipstick Traces, Marcus quoted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham as saying, “The great American substitute for social revolution is murder”) and great waves of not especially controlled metaphor were unleashed upon the reader. But mostly Marcus just wrote about the unfathomable greatness of The Basement Tapes, how this album seemed to tap into the unselfconsciously strange aura of traditional American folk music. I like The Basement Tapes (though I rank it in the second tier of Dylan’s ouevre) but to me the greatness of The Basement Tapes is most definitely fathomable.

The book left me with a taste for the question that Marcus brings up and fails to answer: just how weird is this country? I am once again curious about this body of sometimes alienating Ameircan folk music. I know from past listening that some of this stuff is ethereal in its murkiness and jaggedness. On the other hand, there is plenty that is downright unlistenable for the same reasons.

The essential problem with The Old, Weird America is it wants to conjure up old ghosts–and then seems surprised to find the subject matter slippery and hard to pin down.


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