Books on the bedside table

Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast by Bruce Bastin (University of Illinois Press, 1986 [hc]; 1995 [pb]) claims to be, according to the book jacket, the “definitive story of the origin and evolution of the American blues tradition.” Well, it’s not quite that, but certainly it’s among the best historical introductions to the Piedmont Blues tradition. Working with folklorist Peter B. Lowry, Bastin undertook a years-long investigation into the history and the then-current status of the Piedmont Blues; in the book, chapters are devoted to Georgia blues pianists, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, among many others. Bastin’s attempt to be comprehensive can lead to longueurs, and his prose lacks the sparkle of Sam Charters and Robert Palmer at times, but on the whole it’s indispensable.

Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer by Henry Nash Smith (Harvard University Press, 1962 [hc]; Atheneum, 1972 [pb]) was one of the first books to focus exclusively on Twain’s development as a writer rather than his colorful biography, with chapters on most of Twain’s major novels, speeches, and short fictions. What’s especially interesting is Smith’s description of Twain’s use of the American vernacular as it emerged from The Innocents Abroad all the way through A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court and his ongoing experiments with the novel form (something lacking in the continuing critical dialogue about Twain’s work even today).

The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Little, Brown and Company, 1997 [hc]; Back Bay Books, 1998 [pb]) is the go-to compilation of Crumb’s early- to mid-career achievements. Those who are only familiar with the Terry Zwigoff documentary about the cartoonist may be disappointed; as Ty Burr wrote in an essay about the book for the New York Times:

Where’s the wacky, dysfunctional family circus, the suicidal older brother upstairs, the younger brother on a bed of nails in an S.R.O. hotel, the carnal comedy of Crumb’s ex-girlfriends discoursing on his sexual dimensions?

They’re all merely alluded to in passing, and that is precisely the point. … [The] slick, often astoundingly funny 250-page compendium does make a case — up to a point — for Mr. Crumb as an unparalleled craftsman, social critic, sexual obsessive, blues freak, fly-on-the-wall of the 60’s and perhaps the most potent cultural curmudgeon since H. L. Mencken.

Going through this book (and The Weirdo Years, which picks up chronologically where the Coffee Table Art Book leaves off), I think an even stronger case can be made that Crumb is, in many ways, today’s Mark Twain. Like Twain, Crumb’s vocabulary is distinctly American; both artists evince an ambiguous nostalgia for a past that may be just corrupt as the present but which appeals more to their temperaments than our current culture; and both twist the cultural forms in which their work appears (the boy’s book and pastoral romance in Twain’s case; the comic book in Crumb’s) to expand the possibilities of those chosen forms, turning those vehicles for popular culture into bizarre, idiosyncratic satiric visions of the society in which they live. Crumb is not unlike Twain — with the sex added.

Blind Boy Fuller: “Truckin’ My Blues Away”

Blind Boy Fuller by R. Crumb.

Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen, 1904?-1941) was one of the most exemplary musicians of the Piedmont Blues style, influenced by the granddaddy of the style, Blind Blake, among others. Among Piedmont Blues artists he may have had the most unusual influence on popular culture, contributing the phrase “Keep On Truckin'” to American lingo in the late 1960s (via R. Crumb, who also drew the portrait at right and the record cover below), as well as the title of the Rolling Stones album “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out” through his 1938 recording “Get Your Ya Yas Out” (which, it seems to me, is more grammatically correct anyway). Jas Obrecht put together this comprehensive biography and appreciation in 2011.

The Piedmont style is most evident in Fuller’s light, syncopated finger-style picking. He was “one of the most popular [Piedmont Blues singers of his time] with rural African Americans,” says the Wikipedia page devoted to his life and work. It goes on:

Fuller recorded over 120 sides, which were released by several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics were explicit and uninhibited, drawing on every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind black man on the streets — pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death — with an honesty that lacked sentimentality. Although he was not sophisticated, his artistry as a folk singer lay in the honesty and integrity of his self-expression. His songs expressed desire, love, jealousy, disappointment, menace and humor. … Because of his popularity, he may have been overexposed on records, but most of his songs stayed close to tradition, and much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.

In New York in 1936, Fuller recorded “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” one of his most memorable tracks, which gave rise to “Keep On Truckin’.” It also lends its name to this 1991 Yazoo compilation album.

Vladimir Voinovich (1932-2018)

Vladimir Voinovich (1932-2018)

I was saddened to learn of the death on July 27 of Vladimir Voinovich, who passed away in Moscow at the age of 85. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that he’d lasted that long. He was perhaps the greatest satirist of the post-Khrushchev period in the Soviet Union, then the Putin period in Russia, and unlike many novelists, in Russia or elsewhere, he worked almost entirely in the satiric mode. Voinovich first came to notice in the West with the publication of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969; published in English in 1977), the first part of a three-volume masterpiece about a somewhat dim but honest and patriotic soldier in World War II Ukraine, then in the post-war Soviet Union. In 1986/1987, Voinovich would fine-tune his satiric vision in Moscow 2042, a fantasy about the future of the Soviet Union; in Monumental Propaganda (2000), he investigated the legacy of Stalin’s personality cult in Putin’s Russia. Voinovich was also the author of several non-fiction essays.

Voinovich’s biography details many run-ins with both the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia; by the end of his life, he was castigating Putin for his brutality in Ukraine and Crimea. In a 2017 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he drew parallels between contemporary Russia and the stagnated Soviet Union under Brezhnev in the 1970s: “They are breaking up demonstrations. They are throwing people in prison on basically the same charges. True, they aren’t giving seven-year sentences, but rather two. And now they have begun driving people out of the country.” He also supported Pussy Riot’s protests.

Though very much a Russian writer, Voinovich was a brilliant satirist of all kinds of authoritarianism and totalitarianism; much of what he has to say is just as relevant in Trump’s America as it is in Putin’s Russia (though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this). And the high comic spirit that infests almost every page of his work is accompanied by a rueful, pessimistic melancholy that the world would essentially never change — a trait he shared with most of the great satirists, from Swift and Twain to Joe Heller and William Gaddis.

In 2015, Cathy Young interviewed him for The Daily Beast, and on July 30 Victor Davidoff wrote this appreciation for The Moscow Times. Below is a short YouTube English-language conversation with the man himself, interviewed by Al Jazeera in 2014.

About Piedmont Blues

Piedmont blues is a variety of blues that emerged from the Piedmont plateau region of the southeastern United States, along the Atlantic coast (as opposed to the kind of blues that originated in the Mississippi delta). It’s a fingerstyle blues with a strong ragtime influence; its earliest practitioners were Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, and it could be argued that it had an even greater influence on the folk movement of the 1960s through Dave Van Ronk and Arlo Guthrie than it did on the kind of electric Chicago blues performed by B.B. King and others. Largely acoustic, much of its early history is covered by Samuel Charters in his 1959 The Country Blues.

Leon Redbone and R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders kept this style of music alive and in the larger public’s eye through the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently bands like Eden and John’s East River String Band (with whom Crumb often sits in) have devoted followings. Back in 1998, Folkways, a series from University of North Carolina Public Television, devoted an episode to the genre, featuring a few of the oldest surviving practitioners of the Piedmont Blues: Etta Baker, George Higgs and John Dee Holeman. Though Mr. Holeman is still with us, Ms. Baker and Mr. Higgs have gone on to a better place; it’s a treat to be able to hear them perform — and reminisce — in the 30-minute documentary below, hosted by David Holt.

Roundup: Europe and back

Scott Joplin.

This week I detailed a few memories and meditations regarding my travels to Paris last week — just one step ahead of our esteemed leader, who seems to have made it his mission to destroy every last one of our transatlantic partnerships. Interestingly, in the hotel we stayed at, Marilyn caught a glimpse of Rudolph Giuliani stepping into an elevator, apparently an advance guard for the steamroller to follow. But I’m convinced there will always be a Europe, regardless of all the attempts to raze it to the ground.

Next week our usual programming, most of which seems to be associated with Americana, will resume. But to close out today, I offer Joshua Rifkin’s cheerful, driving rendition of Scott Joplin‘s “Stoptime Rag,” composed in 1910. It’s one of Joplin’s rare ventures into the novelty rag; note Rifkin’s footstomping beat in the below recording. (Marilyn herself will be performing Joplin’s “Bethena” on a program with Charles Ives’ “Concord” sonata at St. Bart’s next season; click here and scroll down to May, but don’t miss any of the other concerts, either.)

See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Prost!