This month: R. Crumb at the David Zwirner Gallery

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” (1979, revised 1992).

On February 21, the David Zwirner Gallery at 519 West 19th Street will open “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact,” a major retrospective of the work of R. Crumb. “The exhibition will feature a wide array of printed matter culled from the artist’s archive: tear sheets of drawings and comics, taken directly from the publications where the works first appeared, as well as related ephemera,” reads the press release for the exhibition. “Further illuminating Crumb’s practice, the show will also feature a selection of rare sketchbooks and original drawings by the artist.” The exhibition will also feature digital touchscreen versions of many of Crumb’s sketchbooks, not to mention:

Also on view will be a group of historical works on paper by English and American satirists and illustrators including William Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Nast, and Art Young, offering a unique opportunity to understand Crumb within the great traditions of social critique that extend back to the eighteenth century. In addition, director Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, Crumb, a film that explores the artist’s life, career, and family, will be screened continuously throughout the run of the show.

It’s a long overdue tribute to a graphic artist who came to be one of the great satirists of American culture of the 20th century. More information about the exhibition can be found here; it runs through April 13. Not long ago I managed to grab myself a giclée print of the work at the top of this post; I wrote briefly about it when I did. You’ll find that below.


[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon. [UPDATE: Read about that album here, released early this year.]

Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”

Elizabeth Cotten‘s “Freight Train” is one of the more moving examples of the Piedmont Blues, and a somewhat late entry into its early history. Cotten, born in 1893 in North Carolina, was a self-taught guitarist who when young began to write her own songs. She gave up guitar playing after she married and had children in the 1910s. Much later, in the early 1950s after she was divorced and living in the Washington D.C. area, Cotton was working in a department store when she helped a lost young child find her mother among the aisles; the child was Peggy Seeger, and her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger. Shortly thereafter the Seegers hired Cotten as a housemaid; at that point, Cotten picked up the guitar once more and learned it all over again from scratch.

She came to prominence thereafter with performances and a few recordings for Folkways Records; she died in Syracuse, New York, in 1987. Below, a late recording of “Freight Train,” which she wrote at the age of 11. In the liner notes to her first album, she said:

We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman … and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They’d let us ride in the engine … put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and chang­ing … that was how I got my first train ride.

We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train to come. My brother, he’d wait for the train to get real close and then he’d hang down from one of the ties and swing back up after the train had passed over him.

Matchbox Blues

R. Crumb’s portrait of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

These days I’ve been enjoying Samuel Charters’ groundbreaking 1959 study The Country Blues (reissued by Da Capo Press in 1975 with a new introduction by Charters); at the same time the companion LP of the same name, released by Folkways Records, has been getting some play around the house as I make my own efforts towards cultural appropriation by learning country blues guitar. The first cut on the LP is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1927. The single is important for American popular music in a variety of ways. According to the Wikipedia page for Jefferson, it’s been selected as “one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis also covered it.

Stephen Calt wrote the text on the back of Jefferson’s entry in R. Crumb’s “Heroes of the Blues Trading Cards.” It reads:

A native of Wortham, Texas, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson worked as a street singer and visited several states in the course of his travels. His successful recording debut in 1926 launched the vogue for country blues. Before his mysterious death in 1929, Jefferson recorded 85 sides and established himself as the most popular blues guitarist of his era. An off-beat guitarist known for his free phrasing patterns, he was one of the most inspired singers found in blues.

Below, Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues.” You can find the lyrics here. It’s also the first cut on Yazoo’s 2007 compilation The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Cue the fat lady?

Among the books I’ve been reading in this new year, I can wholeheartedly recommend Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America by the Wall Street Journal‘s Heidi Waleson (Macmillan 2018). Whether you’re an opera enthusiast or not, Waleson’s history of the company, which has risen from the ashes more than once, is a revealing look at the artistic and business life of a significant New York City cultural institution. NYCO was founded in 1944 as a “People’s Opera,” offering a low-cost alternative to the more stately and generously funded Metropolitan Opera, but both the company’s mission and its management found it difficult — and ultimately impossible — to negotiate the tidal changes in arts presentation over the 60 years that followed. Waleson’s book chronicles the backstage and boardroom tensions and challenges shared by many of America’s non-profit arts organizations over the same period. Since this is opera, many of the personalities involved are, as they say, “larger than life” (though life got to most of them in the end), and as a result the book is a fascinating page-turner about both NYCO’s management and artistic personnel and its deeper financial crises. Waleson, the Wall Street Journal‘s opera critic and a faculty member at the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, writes with grace and authority. And it may just make you pay a little more attention to opera criticism in your daily newspaper, if not plan to visit a local opera house yourself.

By the time the NYCO was founded, entertainment options in urban areas and elsewhere were already beginning to multiply exponentially. Only 20 years earlier, radio became a fixture in homes around the country, and by 1929 the silent film was dead. In the next few decades, television and then LPs (along with stereo FM radio) made it possible for the culturally ambitious to avoid visiting performance spaces at all. And in our own day, cable television and the Internet provide hundreds more entertainment options at every hour of every day at a fraction of the price of a ticket to the opera, let alone the movies. If the NYCO was founded in response to the perception that the Met had become a haven for the elite, it would soon find itself in competition with these other cultural options as well. Instead of the institution (the Met), the art form itself (opera) increasingly came to seem an elitist project.

My own bailiwick, at least until a few years ago, was drama and live theater — significantly less expensive to produce than opera, but labor- and finance-intensive just the same. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to conclude that institutions that produce live theater became just as much the victim of these cultural changes as well. Waleson notes that the money needed to provide living wages to artists and musicians, as well as the technicians and management personnel required to run these institutions, increased as audience numbers, and subsequently earned income, decreased.

None of the strategies that the NYCO and other institutions explored over the past 60 years proved to be a magic bullet. The subscription model that served to finance the institutions fell apart in the 1970s, in part the victim of just these same dynamics. Opera- and theater-goers were no longer inclined to purchase tickets to five or six productions that ranged through an entire year. Instead, because they had more options, they could pick and choose the individual productions they wished to see. Good for the audience, but not so good for the institutions, which relied on stronger-performing shows to finance those that performed less well, spreading financial risk through a season. Subscription income provided that insurance.

In circling the wagons, cultural institutions tried a variety of approaches to increase earned income: relying upon star power instead of a repertory company (Beverly Sills’ emergence as a major operatic talent at the NYCO, for example, drew audiences who wanted to see her, not necessarily the opera she appeared in); the inclusion of more popular music-theater forms into what had seemed like a stodgy, Eurocentric canon; running shows in stagione instead of repertory, which lowered production and labor costs; commissioning new work in an attempt to integrate more contemporary composers and artists into the traditional repertory; and so on and so on. All noble ventures, to be sure. Unfortunately, this also led to a continuing fragmentation of the audience base, which may be interested in some of these new efforts (new operas, new directions in staging) but not others (older operas presented more traditionally). In addition, an emphasis on novelty undermined the role of these institutions in presenting the history of the form. What one aesthetic hand giveth, another taketh away.

It is increasingly clear that the large urban institutions that produce opera and theater need to find a way to balance all of these possibilities — standard rep in both traditional and experimental stagings, new work both traditional and innovative in form — and to find ways to migrate audience members from one to the other and back again. I would suggest that these institutions look more closely at one of the roles they’ve neglected: that of educating its audiences about the art forms they present. In order to do so, they must present work that, as primary text, explores the appeal of both traditional and new performance practice and forms.

Waleson concludes her book, as well she should, with an optimism that the operatic form itself is still alive, well and evolving, and that the form will continue to endure. The same, surely, can be said about theater. Live performance continues to appeal because it serves a basic human, communal need. But the ability of cultural institutions to meet this need is still a symptom of the health of a culture. The reluctance of NYCO’s Board and management to take a long, hard look at that ability — and what the art form itself could contribute to cultural life — led to its failure. The fat lady may not be in the wings yet, but, since entertainment options continue to fragment the potential younger audience, she may be warming up.

The roots of the roots

The East Village’s own American roots band.

When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least-embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.

So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”

This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. (It’s something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.

Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.

It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.

If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you’ve developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I’m doin’ what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $16.69 (they’re throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell ’em Goldie and Billie’s dad sent ya.

An informative 2015 interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here.