I Walked Off to Look for America

What's good and invisible and almost secret about AmericaThe first thing you hear is a deep analog groove – that high, murky hiss that transports you back in time, like the snap and flicker of a Super 8mm film. Then a little old guitar, sounding like the strings haven’t been changed in years, starts up a half-plucked, half-strummed rhythm. It’s incredibly catchy – the guitar and recording technology may be bone-simple, but this guy can play. Then Charley Patton starts singing. It’s a rough, straightforward voice that darts in and out of the rock-solid rhythm he’s laying down. “My jelly, my roll, please mama don’t you let it fall.” The song dances, skips, jumps around in perfect rhythm in the hands of this one guy, who you can bet is doing the take cold. It’s rough and frisky and fun, and one big reason I like it is that Jack White of the White Stripes really likes Charley Patton. And I’m, like, totally into the White Stripes.

My father gave me this Charley Patton cd for Christmas. It’s a French edition with all-French liner notes, and I opened it in England. My father’s lived in England for 15 years – his third wife is British and they settled in Oxford. My dad has become very English, which irritates me – he’s got the accent, and he uses their slang, calling dumpsters “tips” and saying “Happy Christmas” and “answer phone.” There’s nothing really wrong with those expressions or with England – I’m just jealous, I wish he had never left, and I hate the expression “answer phone.”

One American thing my dad has held onto is old jazz and blues, maybe because he does need some connection to his roots. Over the years, he’s sent me cds by people like Roy Eldridge (who he claims we’re related to), Brownie McGhee, Coleman Hawkins and Kid Creole. My reaction has usually been polite appreciation, but like many selfish, fucked-up children of divorce, I felt a protest, as in: This is the music of your youth. You don’t know the music I love. You left so long ago, you have no idea who I am.

To quote Jon Spencer: I don’t play no blues, I play the rock and roll!

But we’re working all this out. As I slowly come to understand and forgive my father’s need to distance himself from his past, I’ve grown to love the blues. I’ve come to it through my own youth-culture obsessions: the White Stripes, Beck, Cat Power, Lucinda Williams. In a way, these ultra-cool musicians legitimized something that I’d rejected as part of my high-culture, isolating upbringing.

You’ve gotta understand what it’s like growing up in an academic family. We used to sing 4-part madrigals on car trips. My sister and I played violin and studied music theory, and in the house, my parents played opera, jazz and classical music, which was rich and thrilling and I never listen to any of it anymore. I had almost no connection to pop culture during my formative years. We barely even watched TV. It was like being a Martian, and when one of the other Martians leaves the pod, you feel a little panicky. But then you find out almost everyone feels like a Martian, or at any rate, there are other, friendly Martians out there. And you find your own pod – but this takes time.

One night at my father’s house this Christmas, we’d had a lot of wine and there was some great blues playing. I asked who it was and my dad said, “Robert Johnson.” I asked if he’d make a tape of it for me, and then I found myself telling him about Cat Power, trying to explain the soulful power she shares with these blues singers. “She’s blues-influenced, but not in every song – it’s more like that vocal soul thing, that uncanny, Southern sound,” I said. My father seemed interested, and I said I’d make him a Cat Power tape. He left the room and, inspired by Robert Johnson, I found myself trying to explain America to my stepmother. “People see us only as war-waging monsters, but this, this kind of music, this is the soul of America. This is what people outside don’t know.” She’s very kind and very reasonable, but she had to tell me, “Of course, but you must understand that right now, it’s impossible to see America in any other light but as an aggressor.”

The gas fire flickered in the grate. Robert Johnson wailed his laments in the background. I knew my stepmother was right, and I felt sad that in England, I represent a conservative, imperialistic country. But the music, I kept arguing in my mind. The music represents what’s good and invisible and almost secret about America.

Back in New York, I made a tape for my father of Moon Pix and You Are Free. I guess it doesn’t matter what he’ll make of Cat Power’s minimalist melodies, repetitive structures and haunted lyrics. I love them, but he doesn’t have to. I’m just glad I finally thought of something to give him.

There’s a Grammy-winning Charley Patton box set that’s supposed to be amazing, but if you just want the music without all the trappings, you can pick up this no frills collection for about $150 cheaper.

12 thoughts on “I Walked Off to Look for America”

  1. “The music represents what’s good and invisible and almost secret about America.”

    This reminds me of Greil Marcus’ book, “Invisible Republic” (recently reprinted under a title like “That Strange America” or something).

    The book is about Dylan and the Band, holed up in Woodstock creating an American musical revolution in the basement of a big pink house. It’s also about the music on Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” records.

  2. Thank you, Kristy, for that honestly touching article. It’s fascinating to see how diverse generations, if they’re both willing, can find the bridges that connect them. Whether it’s as critical as you and your father or the happy fact that I was able to turn my 16-year-old cousin onto the ‘Mats Stink EP, it’s always a beautiful thing. Your article made this morning that much cooler for me; thanks.

  3. Kristy, this is a really wonderful article and a great example of the real impact that music can have on a person’s life… the ability to draw us into a shared experience where two very different people can acknowledge feelings that they have for each other through the lens of music or some other artistic endeavor. And that’s what makes art important… it’s ability to bring us a little closer together in spite of the vastness of time and distance that might separate us. Well done.

  4. Thanks, you guys. I appreciate it.

    Citizen Keith, I’ve always had trouble reading Greil Marcus. With both Lipstick Traces and Dustbins of History, and I found it hard to stay with him on his tangents (rants?). But “Invisible Republic” sounds intriguing. Maybe I’ll try again.

    Does anybody else have this problem with Marcus? Even in his short things in the Voice, sometimes I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. He’s got this insider’s patois thing going. I mean, I guess.

  5. Hey, I think Jon Spencer is riffing on bluesman Mississippi Fred MacDowell’s famous quote: “I do not play no rock and roll.”

    (great article, Kristy!)

  6. I think Lipstick Traces and Mystery Train are worth sticking with. They’re pretty interesting books and Marcus does know his art/social movements. I don’t dig his Village Voice stuff though. More and more he’s coming off like Christgau; pontificating like he’s throwing thunderbolts down from Mt. Olympus with every opinion. Fuck that. If I want that I’ll go down to the local bar.

  7. Hi Kristy,

    This is a great article! I didn’t know music could be such a bridge, but I’m very glad for you both.

    Who is the picture?

    Your friend, E.

    (maybe this crazy email stuff is really worth pursuing.)

  8. The picture is of Charlie Patton, Elizabeth. At a pretty young age, it looks like, though he only lived to be 34. (If you Google him, you can find Robert Crumb’s comic-book biography of him — it’s great.)

  9. What a good story!

    It’s not fair of me to say without really justifying why, but I hate hate hate Greil Marcus! He’s so heavy-handed, it’s like he’s, it’s like he’s writing with ovenmitts or something. Basically I find that he lards his work with too much poorly-digested literary theory, and literary theory that’s already poorly-digested social theory at that. Kristy, it’s not you, it’s him. When you do get past all his obfuscatory crap, he isn’t saying anything at all. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Am I making any friends here folks? Plus he makes it kind of “story-like” in this faux-downhome way that I hate. If you’re like me and can’t tolerate more than five sentences of Marcus, I recommend Peter Guralnick. Basically he writes about Southern Music pre-Skynrd. If anyone can think of a great book about punk that isn’t Lipstick Traces, I’d love to know about it!

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