by carl wilson

John Clare Vs. John Henry

Quite a critical crossdressing moment occurs on page 8 of today's NY Times Book Review: Terrence Rafferty (a general essayist but best known as a movie critic) gets the assignment of reviewing Jonathan Bate's new biography of John Clare (the 19th-century English rural poet who followed up a meteroic ascent to fame with an equally meteoric plunge into madness). Then Rafferty goes on to make his best point by pretending suddenly to be a music critic: [...]

And this biography's final, awe-struck judgment on its unhappy subject is that he was ''without question the greatest laboring-class poet England ever gave birth to.'' Here in the New World, we're less astonished by the existence of unschooled, ''laboring-class'' poets, although we tend to encounter them on discs rather than on the printed page. Clare's work might be understood best, in fact, by those who can hear in it the sort of deceptively simple music we know from the likes of A. P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Skip James, Robert Johnson and Johnny Cash, all of them in thrall to their rural muse. Clare was, at heart, a ballad singer, the practitioner of a mournful and ecstatic art. One of his loveliest and most disconsolate poems, ''Decay: A Ballad,'' is constructed around the refrain ''O poesy is on the wane'' (he means his own, as well as the art in general); and the sentiment expressed there is exactly the one that animates Bob Dylan's great elegy ''Blind Willie McTell,'' whose refrain goes, ''I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.'' There was a time, I think it's fair to say, when no one sang the blues like mad John Clare.

He doesn't extend the comparison - that's the last paragraph of the essay - and doesn't otherwise add too much to the current Clare-mania (which came to my attention through John Ashbery's lovely appreciation of Clare, among other "minor" poets he adores, in his book Other Traditions). But earlier in the piece, he complains about England's Eric Robinson, "who has, controversially, managed to obtain the copyright on nearly all of Clare's 3,500 or so poems, and issued them in editions that faithfully reproduce the miserable spelling and nonexistent punctuation of the writer's manuscripts. It's like 1820 all over again, the Northamptonshire peasant poet sprung from the earth to gladden the hearts of nature worshippers and class warriors. Even his champions sometimes appear neither to know nor care what this poetry is about."

Now if John Clare is Skip James or Johnny Cash, we get an intriguing reversal of some of the illogics of "authenticity" that have obtained around folk and blues music in this classless and enlightened "New World" of Rafferty's: Robinson might find his equivalent in some of the impresarios of the 1960s blues-and-folk revival, who've been accused not only of monkeying with copyright and publishing rights, but (depending on the accuser) of either prettying up the artists' recordings to make them palatable to white/urban audiences (which seems to be what Rafferty thinks would do Clare better justice) or, in other cases, of concealing the sophistication of these artists commercially, technologically, etc., in order to improve the presentation of them as "peasant poets" (as Robinson is charged).

A similar dynamic is sometimes detected in the alternative country/bluegrass revival/O Brother Where Art Thou era, when an artist like Ralph Stanley is sometimes marketed as though he had just strolled down out of the Appalachians and hadn't been a major figure in popular (notice that word, popular) music for 50-odd years, or bluegrass is misperceived as being spontaneous folk music rather than a relatively complex, post-jazz country form, etc. -- or again, on the other hand, someone like T-Bone Burnett is accused of overproducing and softening up or schmaltzing up folk music with his crystal-pool-clear, duvet-warm studio sound, or Rick Rubin is accused of trying to "hip" up Johnny Cash (as if anyone could really have gotten John R. Cash to do something he didn't want to do, especially in his final decade).

I have been through so many versions of these authenticity debates, from so many angles, that I have decided it's all a mug's game. While Robinson should sure as hell not have those copyrights, I see no reason why there shouldn't be cleaned-up and dirtied-up volumes of Clare's verse out there for comparison and contrast, just as there are relatively polished and relatively gritted-up versions of Ralph Stanley out there on CD. Every presentation of an artistic work is exactly that, a presentation, and authenticity becomes compromised as soon as the decision to perform, record, reproduce takes place. Or maybe when the decision to create it takes place -- and the complications only multiply from there. If there is an authenticity to an artistic work, you will never locate it, just as you can never verify someone else's sincerity. Or for that matter, your own. The authentic is the reflection of a reflection, and what we see in a mirror most habitually is only our own image, reversed.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, February 16 at 02:02 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



I suspect that wasn't the song so much as the man - Oldham can be notoriously annoying to deal with. But if Cash didn't like the song, by all accounts of the American Recordings process, there's no reason why he should have selected it. (And I doubt Rick Rubin would have pushed for Oldham as hard as he would for the Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails songs, given his own tastes and marketing interests.)

Posted by zoilus on February 18, 2004 12:23 PM



I got the impression that maybe - just maybe - John R. Cash didn't like performing the Will Oldham song on Solitary Man, despite the fact that he did it so brilliantly. In his notes, Cash praises the collaboration of everyone who came into the studio, with the conspicuous absense of Oldham.

Posted by seandix on February 18, 2004 09:17 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson