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.