Saturday, July 28, 2012

`The Underpainting of All Dark Writing'

“It is this ability to walk to the edge of the pit and step back from it with a good story that makes a great writer.”

The abyss is never sufficient. Nor is staring into it, that quintessential romantic gesture, or even rappelling safely down the sheerness of its wall. What counts is the quality of the story you bring back.  Otherwise, the abyss is nothing but a landfill for the self-pitying, undisciplined and self-destructive. The passage above is from Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (Pantheon Books, 2004), a biography of the great lyricist, songwriter and singer by the late Gene Lees. It comes near the end of the book, after Lees has placed Mercer (1909-1976), a drinking man born in Savannah, Ga., in the context of Southern writing and its alcoholic practitioners (Poe, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams) – a subject always ripe for romanticizing. (We might cite counter-examples – Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Guy Davenport.) Lees continues: 

“In the case of lyric writing, this surefootedness is even more necessary, for the lament is one of the main forms of the art, and the ability to walk that wire of pathos without falling into the pit of bathos is an indispensable element of the craft. You cannot write tragedy without a sense of humor; the lack of it produces something turgid and dull. Wit must be the underpainting of all dark writing.”

Mercer was a late master of a now extinct art form, dead for fifty years or more. In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Alec Wilder ended the era at the half-century. Inarguably, rock and roll killed off the stragglers in the subsequent decade. Rock songwriters do a lot of bathetic pit-staring but seldom bring back a good story. Generally they’re a humorless bunch and almost never witty. (An exception, from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” the funniest line he has written: “She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”)

But Lees is making a bigger, more essential point about the importance of humor and wit to writing. The comic tempers not only the tragic but the merely sad, and who needs unalloyed sadness? For a smile if not a laugh, listen to Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden performing Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande).” The vocal is Teagarden’s. Favorite lines:

“I’m a riding fool who is up to date
I know every trail in the Lone Star state
‘cause I ride the range in a Ford V-8


Anonymous said...

Coffee, Kurp and Teagarden. No better way to start a weekend! Thanks always.

drizzz said...

Another "western" song with very witty lyrics by Dorothy Fields: Jack Teagarden on trombone with a host of other great musicians.