The Music of Our Sins

Letters at 3am


illustration by Jason Stout

We've stuck the words "great" and "culture" to gobs of hype but let's pretend they still mean something and say that there's a great cultural event to speak of: the reissue of the most influential music compilation in recording history, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (originally issued by Folkways in 1952). Whether or not you've ever heard of it, you've been touched by it.

Smith's Anthology was the fountain and Bible of the great folk revival of the Fifties and early Sixties, echoes of which can still be heard in coffee shops all over the country. That revival not only became the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement, but was also a primary avenue of white involvement in that movement. As if that wasn't enough to insure the Anthology's place in history, its influence on Bob Dylan and his generation of songwriters is immeasurable, and it was their approach to songs that transformed rock & roll from teen ditties to the music of the Band, the Doors, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Cobain, and on and on -- in fact, it is impossible to imagine their existence without what the Anthology of American Folk Music sparked.

Art is the lifeline to morality. That is why it has so many enemies. By morality I don't mean "the straight and narrow path," which, as we can see by the intolerance and cruelty of its advocates, is decidedly narrow but not straight. By morality I mean an unflinching awareness of the paradoxes of the human spirit, a cherishing of our lights and darknesses, with mercy toward our frailties, tolerance for our differences, and reverence for our struggles; the recognition that for the human heart to be known it must be expressed (however disturbing its expressions may be); and the acceptance of the consequences of this conviction: that every life is sacred (whether we approve of that life or not). This morality is what the two crucial phrases of the American dream -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" -- were meant to encompass and uphold.

Yes, this dream (because it is so marvelous) must always fail to be fully lived. But the dream recurs daily, and no amount of failure has allowed us to forsake it entirely. Most would rather forget it and just make money. Yet it continues to haunt us, and always will. It accuses us at every step, when we lack the courage it demands. As a nation we evade the dream at every step, we're careful to elect politicians who forget it for us, but we can't forget it. We haven't been strong enough to live it, but we can't let it go. And that is both our agony and our hope.

The Anthology of American Folk Music never ever, in its 84 selections, mentions this dream, this morality. Not directly. Its songs (recorded by black and white Southerners in the late 1920s and early 1930s) are mostly about another old and inescapable word: sin. The murders of lovers, children, and ne'er-do-wells; suicides; failures (some heroic, some cowardly); ships sinking, trains crashing, political assassinations; love gone inevitably wrong, whether the lovers marry or not (so much for "traditional family values"); men working themselves to death, or worked to death by a merciless boss, or too lazy to work at all; hillbilly women who don't need college courses to tell them they're in servitude to their husbands; wastrels proud to drink, fight, and gamble, rather than live like you; odes to dead dogs; the wildest fiddling and subtlest guitar playing you've ever heard; birds that talk to people and people that talk to God (but hardly anyone in these songs talks to each other, except to lie, or to beg for love or mercy, and their begging is always futile); a man who wishes he was a mole in the ground, and another who asks nothing of us (so deeply has he given up on us) but that we see his grave is kept clean; and finally, in the 84th and last song, an insanely happy guy who cares for nothing but fishing, summing up everything he knows about himself and us in one truth, which is that "any fish bite if you got good bait."

The "sin" they are singing of is sin as it's defined in the only book most of these singers knew, the Bible. It is the sin of having a yearning, wild, unknowable human heart -- a heart that wants contradictory things that cancel each other out, leaving us longing and alone; a heart that resists definitions and resists limits, even the Bible's (much less those of civil law). With the exception of a scary gent called Boggs, none of these singers seems proud of these facts. On the contrary: They are tortured by them. Except for the gospel numbers, the inner secret of their music is this: Much as they want it to be otherwise, their hearts' desires are stronger than the precepts they've been taught; and, though they know that disaster awaits, they are more loyal to their hearts than their precepts.

European classical music tries to contain the heart within concepts of order. The Anthology's singers know nothing of order (an incredible fact, contradicting all our nostalgia for a "simpler" past); and they are too funky to jibe with classical notions of tragedy. In American music, the sin inherent in the human heart is not contained by anything. (Another incredible fact.) Jazz is a meditation within the sin; rock is a celebration of the sin; the elegant sentimentality of the kind of songs sung by Frank Sinatra is a wish that the sin somehow not be a sin. But in the Anthology of American Folk Music, the singers are too frenzied and worried to meditate; when they celebrate, it is an admission of powerlessness, the sense that only God can help them; and they are almost shockingly unsentimental. Their music sees no way out of the labyrinth of the human heart, and no way to mitigate its danger, the ever-present danger of having a heart, of being a heart -- and they find this truth to be, itself, a song.

Though one song mentions the Fourth of July, not one refers to the American dream, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or the Gettysburg Address -- yet they are what every single song in the Anthology is measured against. For these songs -- and, even more, these performances -- are haunted by the ideal of liberty. Their fatalism is only a mask, an attempt to contain their rage at the failure of liberty.

The ideal of liberty... is an agony. It tortures us with the realization (however we run from admitting it) of our bondage, our failure to truly free ourselves. Yet there is no fatalism strong enough to stand against the ideal of liberty; no philosophy convincing enough to make us forsake it; no material comfort, no consumer booby prize rich enough to make us entirely forget it; no political corruption discouraging enough to make us entirely give up on it. (I have lived through the most cynical presidencies of American history, from Truman's to Clinton's, one war criminal and racist and hustler after another, and I still want to believe in the great American polity, whether I believe in it anymore or not.) The bondage implicit in the Anthology's songs -- bondage to precepts smaller than the heart, and bondage to the economy (these singers were poor) -- is a bondage that can't believe it must be. And this creates a quality of, as my friend Naunie would say, "No hope, but hope."

If this wasn't true of these songs, then the Anthology could never have had such influence; could never, for one, have been the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement.

For there is a corollary to "Art is a lifeline to morality," and it is this: Integrity is freedom. And it is the only freedom that you need only yourself to achieve.

As the well-off prove every day, freedom has nothing to do with money. (Most people, in our "free" country, can only make money if they do what they're told. This includes our entrepreneurs, who must do whatever "the market" tells them to do.) And the powerful prove every day, as we watch them disgrace themselves, that freedom has nothing to do with power. (Free people are not compelled to disgrace themselves.) And many of the poor and the enslaved have demonstrated over and over again, to the terror of the well-off and powerful, that a person in prison or working two dead-end jobs or raising four kids or creating ignored works of art in isolation can radiate the quality of freedom. What creates this quality? Their integrity. And what is that? Their willingness to listen to their own hearts first and last, no matter how much noise this commercial culture throws at them for the sole purpose (and it is the sole purpose) of drowning out the silent, paradoxical, demanding messages of your heart.

To ignore those messages is corruption. To hear and act upon them is integrity. (I don't mean to imply that we can always follow our hearts; but we can always listen to them.)

That, finally, is the power of the songs in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Every one of these songs -- even the marvelously wild fiddle instrumentals; even the silly funny songs; even (perhaps especially) the mysterious verses that make no damn sense at all -- are about the difficulty and the consequences of deciphering the messages of the heart. Survival is not the final value here. The only value, at the end of each song, is how much of the singer's heart is left when the song is done. "My name I'll never deny," sings one character headed for the gallows. It is the refusal to deny one's true name -- integrity -- that gave and gives the Anthology its healing force.

(to be continued)

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