Saturday, January 30, 2016

`The Most Arcadian, the Most Caustic'

A junior high school friend had very advanced tastes in music and much else. In seventh grade he explained the difference between “sensual” and “sensuous” after using the latter in a poem to describe the sound of a sitar (a very advanced instrument in 1965, the year George Harrison began abusing it). He was the first person I knew to own a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book and the first to mention Herbert Marcuse in my presence.  Steve introduced me to Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs and the United States of America (the band, that is), but his taste wasn’t uniformly bad. The first time I heard a John Fahey (1939-2001) record was in Steve’s room, and half a century later I still listen to Fahey. An even more dedicated listener and acolyte is Norm Sibum, the American-born poet in Montreal who studies guitar at the digital feet of the master. His “Open G for Blind Joe Death” is the final poem in Sub Divo (Biblioasis, 2012). It’s useful to know that Fahey’s first album, recorded in 1959, was titled Blind Joe Death (after a fictional bluesman created by Fahey).

“In a California coffeehouse
You struck the strings of a big guitar.
Finger rolls and slides and strums,
Judgment Day in the whisky jar,
And love and falling out of love.
And now your music comes around again,
Your marches, your waltzes – time’s cotillion.
You in your grave, I hear you once more
In the lacunae, the lacrimae,
In all the spent dreams of life.
You’d been far-seeing with your
Fingerpicking style—

“—John Fahey, of all the exponents of your instrument
America in her blisses and agonies spawned,
The most Arcadian, the most caustic of them,
You orchestrated for our delectation
An American Dis in seventh chords,
You Mississippi John Hurt and Theocritus,
Blind Blake, Bukka, Patton and Virgil
Of the Eclogues messianic and otherwise,
Your years, what else? bittersweet:
1939 – 2001.”

A consistent source of pleasure in Sibum’s poetry is the way he quietly blurs so-called high and pop culture. He hardly recognizes the distinction, so long as the work is good. Here he mingles country bluesmen (John Hurt, Arthur "Blind" Blake, Booker "Bukka" White and Charley Patton) with country poets (Theocritus, Virgil). Fahey wrote his master’s thesis on Patton at UCLA, and an English publisher brought it out in 1970. (On Amazon it goes for a tidy $1,898.98.) The book is simultaneously legitimate scholarship and a parody of same. This is drawn from Fahey’s final chapter, in which he looks at Patton’s lyrics:

“Patton uses the words `Lord’, `Lordy’, and `babe’, `baby’ in most cases for metrical reasons to fill in a portion of the melody. An outstanding example of this is in `Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, in which `Lordy’ or `Lord’’ occurs 28 times. In no case is either of these words essential to or even a rational part of the text. In `It Won’t Be Long’ there are 14 occurrences of `baby’. This word is not essential to the text. In fact, the use of it in this song creates confusion by giving the impression that the singer is speaking to someone. But the stanzas indicate that he is not.”

Fahey frequently shows up in Sibum’s contributions to the Ephemeris blog at Encore Literary Magazine. In 2012 he wrote this:

 “There is in Fahey’s Americana compositions a quality that reflects high spirits, a near unbearable lyricism, and - well - eventually, one is going to sound on the word `brutality’; or, if that is too over the top as a word, the ever-present hint of menace that I will always associate with the `American’ segment of my life offers itself as a candidate for the melange. Is the mix of high spirits, near unbearable lyricism and brutality to be found, say, in Chopin’s etudes? Perhaps.”

To use Louis MacNeice's words in "The Casualty," Sibum is "outside the cliques, unbothered with the fashion," and fortunately, Fahey and Chopin are not mutually exclusive indulgences.

[Go here to read a fine piece about the blues, Fahey and other matters by John Jeremiah Sullivan. And here to read one about Charley Patton written by an old friend and former newspaper colleague in Richmond, Ind., Rick Kennedy.]  

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