The Old, Weird America

Tags: Harry Smith, $60 t-shirts, Hoover’s hobo-fighting robots, regrets.

My colleague Alan stopped me in the hall the other day and said, “I don’t want to start this conversation by saying ‘hey, Rob, you’re into weird stuff, aren’t you?’ but, um, you are into weird stuff, aren’t you?” It’s a fair cop. He wasn’t inviting me to his swingers club or anything like that. The local news had called looking for someone to do fifteen seconds of talking head on the history of Halloween. Which I ended up doing.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed the change to my sidebar, which no longer mentions robots. (I still like robots, I just rarely post about them. Though to be fair, I never promised I’d post about robots, I just said I liked them. Which I still do.) Now the sidebar promises dowsing for “the old, weird America.” That mellifluous phrase comes from Greil Marcus; it’s the title of his book about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and his name for that semi-buried world of often eerie Americana that Dylan and the Band tapped into by way of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The old, weird America is a land of juke joints and revival preachers, medicine shows and haunted battlefields. It’s the music of Harmonica Frank, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. It’s the home of Tom Joad and John Henry, Mike Fink and Stagger Lee. Where preachers speak in tongues and tricksters make deals at crossroads, where grifters run long cons and hoboes lure young lads with songs of candy, where eggheads make breathless, pointless lists of rustic exotica, the old, weird America is near.

(Speaking of old, weird America, check out Greil Marcus’ official home page. Jeez, Greil, I know you love musty old Americana, but it’s time to redesign that puppy. And your web designer’s page–underemployed brother? retired uncle? nephew who’s a whiz with computers?–is even more old, weird 1997.)

Robert Darnton wrote, in his excellent essay about George Washington’s false teeth, that “the taste for strangeness does not suit the favorite flavors of history in the United States.” With due respect, I’m not so sure. When I started this weblog way back in ought-four, I was actually going to call it “Old, Weird America,” but with my uncanny ability to misjudge the zeitgeist (Internet start-up or History PhD?), I didn’t. I think I was worried how the word “weird” might look to a skittish job search committee. Score 1/2 for the Tribbles of the world. But now I’m kicking myself, as I think the old, weird America–the idea and the phrase itself–is on the verge of having an Elvis moment. A random sample of utterly non-scientific evidence:

The Harry Smith Project: a tribute album that just came out with artists like Beck, Elvis Costello, Wilco, and Lou Reed covering the songs from the original Anthology. A movie about Harry Smith–musicologist, mystic, dope fiend, hunchback, theosophist, Templar–is in the works too, or really ought to be.

New Weird America: the inevitable label for a current eruption of psychedelic folk music embracing both outsider artists like Jandek and intentional weirdies like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart.

Barking Irons: An ultra-hip line of T-shirts inspired by the secret history of nineteenth-century New York. Call it old, weird NYC: that Five Points, Bowery, Gangs of New York-y cauldron of booze, violence, and minstrelsy that spawned America’s urban culture. Barking Irons’ creators consider themselves part of a “revolution against branding“–their T-shirts retail for about $60 US.

Down in the Flood: I must mention this great podcast on American roots music by Jason Chervokas. The canonical old, weird American soundtrack is of course Smith’s Anthology, and then the Basement Tapes are what got Greil Marcus going in the first place, but if you want more old weird sounds cruise the gems in this podcast. I especially liked the episodes on the minstrel roots of country and on John Henry and Stagger Lee.

The “secret history of hoboes” section of John Hodgman’s indispensable almanac The Areas of My Expertise, and especially the interwob’s unexpected reaction: a collaborative art project to illustrate Hodgman’s entire list of 700 hobo names. Hoboes are indisputably old, weird America, even without Hodgman’s delirious un-history of Herbert Hoover’s pneumatic hobo-fighting robots and the failed hobo coup of 1932. Sayeth Hodgman on a Boing Boing Boing podcast: “The response to the hobo section of the book has been so outsized compared to the rest of the book that it has really touched I think some sort of generational muscle memory of some lost primary source that we all read in seventh grade.”

Mark my words! (Or don’t: I’ve been predicting a Dobie Gillis / Gilligan’s Island revival for years.) While it’s probably too late to rename this site now, lest I confuse my half dozen loyal readers, I am packing the woodie wagon as we speak for some expeditions into the old, weird America. Maybe I’ll get around to posting them before this old, weird moment is gone.

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