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.

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.

Lonnie Johnson: “Careless Love”

Lonnie Johnson playing in Chicago, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee.

Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) had one of the longest careers of the early country blues musicians. Born in New Orleans, he was best known for his precise musicianship, his vocal talent, and the single-note guitar lines that became a staple of later blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll music. He sat in with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five for several sides recorded in 1927; as Gunther Schuller noted in his book Early Jazz, “Armstrong is no longer outnumbered four to one but has a strong ally. Johnson’s swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly highlights of modern jazz.” He continued to work, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, until just about a year before his death in relative obscurity in Toronto. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote, “[Johnson] must have must have been a good man, because he spoke only good about other people, and I never heard anyone speak anything but good of him. God bless Lonnie Johnson.”

Among his early successes was the below 1928 recording of “Careless Love.” Samuel Charters wrote about the recording in his seminal 1959 book The Country Blues, describing it as “one of [Johnson’s] finest achievements”:

“Careless Love” in successively bitter verses blamed love for an entire life of troubles; finally turning on the personified image of desire with:

… damn you, I’m going to shoot you,
Shoot you four — five times.
Then stand over you until you finish dying.

More information about Johnson can be found in this brief biographical/critical essay by John Cohassey.

A short history of America

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” has always been on my short list of popcult-as-art masterpieces, so I was delighted to recently receive my very own, artist-approved giclée print of the work, now awaiting framing for prominent display. (A few are still available from Crumb Products, your official source for all things Crumb.) The new print differs from the 1979 original in that, in 1992, Crumb added three panels to the original 12-panel version, depicting possible future outcomes: Ecological Disaster; Techno Fix; and the Ecotopian Solution. I was even more delighted to share it with Goldie and Billie, my daughters, who are comics mavens too. In Goldie’s estimation, the most probable outcome will be that of the “Techno Fix.” “I like Ectopian Solution the best,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” We can only hope that Ecological Disaster can be avoided.

I first wrote about Crumb and “A Short History of America” last September. This gives me the welcome opportunity to republish that below; I also recommend Robert Hughes’ essay on Crumb in the March 7, 2005, issue of the Guardian. One of these days I’m going to get around to writing something more substantial on Crumb, Mark Twain, and early 20th-century American music, which I touch on below — and which led me to pick up the ol’ guitar myself recently — but for now, there’s this. At the end of the post, Crumb and the East River String Band play us out.

[“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.