Here's a story John Cohen tells about Harry Smith, the avant-garde filmmaker, beatnik polymath and ethnomusicologist who died in 1991. In the mid-1940s, Smith visited Sara Carter, lead singer for the original Carter Family and the first First Lady of country music. Smith photographed her quilts, looking for correlations between names of patchwork patterns and rifles of Carter Family songs, such as "Diamonds in the Rough." Even to Cohen, a folklorist, filmmaker and musician, it sounded a bit arcane. Still, this was Harry Smith. He'd compiled the nation's most influential collection of traditional song, the 1952 Folkways "Anthology of American Folk Music"--the six-record set Cohen (of the ultratraditionalist New Lost City Ramblers), Bob Dylan and everybody else in the '60s folk scene knew by heart. Later, Smith began talking about his extensive psychedelic experiences. Where did you first take peyote? Cohen asked. Smith said, "On the road to Sara Carter's."
The secret history of rock and roll is right here: the' story of how the counterculture met the old-timers--the banjo players, balladeers and blues singers--and found themselves. It's the missing link in rock's office history. In the mid-1950s, black R&B and white C&W merged in such figures as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry; soon working class vernacular music had displaced the sophisticated songs of Gershwin, Berlin and Cole Porter as the American pop form. Then, in the mid-'60s, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, above all, Dylan introduced something like the modernism that had mutated high art earlier in the century: irony, paradox, willed weirdness, militant unprettiness, dark preoccupations. Where did it suddenly come from? Today surrealist names--Sneaker Pimps, Toad the Wet Sprocket--and enigmatic album rifles are still the norm. Why "Jagged Little Pill"? Why "Bringing Down the Horse"? "Goin' back to Houston, do that hot dog dance," sings Beck on the Grammy-winning "Odelay." Why Houston? What hot dog dance?
The apparent modernist perversity of current pop-from Beck's irreverence to Marilyn Manson's blasphemy-is all prefigured in the old murder ballads and raw dance tunes of poor Southern whites and the blues, hollers and sung sermons of poor Southern blacks. This is the music behind the music behind the music. And it crossed racial lines long before Elvis: whites appropriated the African banjo and the blues; blacks appropriated the European guitar and such hymns as "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room." Since the '3Os, when folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan took Lead Belly from a Louisiana prison to New York City, leftists, bohemians, beats, hippies, punks and post-punks-the perennial middle-class counterculture-have been drawn to this music's power and mystery.
Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Raitt and the Stones paid tribute to this tradition; Bruce Springsteen boned up on the "Anthology" before his minimalist "Nebraska"; even such '90s figures as Kurt Cobain and Beck learned some of the songs and copped some of the attitudes. Cobain closed his "MTV Unplugged" show with a scary version of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Stay Last Night?" Beck, son of a bluegrass musician, plays a Delta-style slide guitar to drum machines and samples; his CD "Stereopathic Soul Manure" includes Blue Yodeler Jimmie Rodgers's "Waitin' for a Train" and a banjo-accompanied take on the Carters' "Sad and Lonesome Day"--which he sings as "Today Has Been a F--d Up Day."
This summer a cornucopia of new CDs should bring the edgy, subversive music of the old rural South closer than it's been since the '60s. Rounder Records has begun releasing what could be 100-plus CDs of recordings by Alan Lomax, now 82, who first recorded Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Raitt's mentor Fred McDowell. The first six are from his 1959-60 "Southern Journey," and there's plenty more where that came from- as wen as stuff from Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.
In May the New Lost City Ramblers, the best-known re-creators of old-time music, released their first new album in 25 years, "There Ain't No Way Out." This month Rambler Mike Seeger (half brother of Pete) puts out "Close to Home," tapes he made between 1959. and 1967 of such purist icons as Dock Boggs and Maybelle Carter (sister-in-law of Sara). Also in June, Dylan's new label, Egyptian, offers 'The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers," with Dylan himself, Steve Earle, Aaron Neville, Dwight Yoakam, Iris Dement and Garcia's last recording, "Blue Yodel #9." And most important of all, in August Folkways will reissue Smith's "Anthology"-unavailable for years because he had essentially bootlegged six LPs' worth of commercial 78s from the '20s and '30s and no one got paid.
Just in time to explain all this comes Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic (286 pages. Henry Holt. $22.50). The book's subtitle says it's a study of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, his mysterious recordings-some still bootleg only-with The Band 30 years ago. But the best chapters are about the folk revival and Smith's "Anthology," which Marcus considers 'the Basement Tapes' secret template. He usefully distinguishes the songs Smith collected--an orgy of murders, disasters, drunken binges and religious ecstasies-from the "pageants of righteousness" sung by such activists as Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the early, Guthrie-influenced Dylan. Folkies felt betrayed when Dylan turned to his own private universe of metaphor and allegory-and, worse, formed a rock-and-roll band. But Dylan, Marcus argues, had merely moved from folk's leftist utopia to "Smithville," the aural shadowland of the American imagination, where "citizens are not distinguishable by race," the "prison population is large," "humor abounds, most of it cruel," and there's "constant war between the messengers of god and ghosts and demons, dancers and drinkers."
Harry Smith admitted that, in addition to musicological considerations, songs "were selected bemuse they were odd." Take Clarence Ashley's "The Coo-Coo Bird" (1929), with its enigmatic opening: "Gonna build me/log cabin/on a mountain/so high/ so I can/see Willie/as he goes/on by." As Marcus notes, "The verse is made to refuse any of the questions it makes you ask. Who is Willie? Why does the singer want to watch him? Why must he put aside his life ... just to accomplish this ordinary act?" It's the hot dog dance of 70 years ago.
Or so it seems to us. How did it seem to Ashley, though? Surely none of the old-timers would have identified themselves as modernists. Aren't we approaching these traditionalists from the sort of Martian distance with which the tripped-out Harry Smith regarded Sara Carter's quilts? And isn't there an element of condescension in appropriating them for our purposes? "But that's how they were helping us," says John Cohen. "In the late '50s, when I was first hearing people like Roscoe Holcomb, I was hanging out in the midst of the abstract expressionists. And I found no great gap. They were both forceful and vigorous and out there somewhere and wailing and touching on places that needed to be gone to because we'd been to all the other places. We took from these people what we needed." That's tradition: not an exhibit, but something handed down, something to be used. Garcia and Cobain got it. Dylan and Beck understand. And in Smithville, there's still fifty miles of elbow room.