Sunday, April 30, 2006

Oh, Lord, this is silly

I just quoted and praised Steve Gilliard for a couple of his recent posts on neo-Confederate nonsense.  But this post about Jesse James - really a post about the folk song "Jesse James" - is just plain silly:  Jesse James was no hero  04/30/06.  He says he's going to do another one with his own text; this one is a quote from Tom Watson at his blog Trouble in the Heartland 04/29/06.

Watson is complaining about the lyrics of the traditional folk song "Jesse James", which Bruce Springsteen includes on his new tribute album to Pete Seeger, who also sang and recorded the song:

History tells a different tale. Skip the heart - in history, Jesse James had a hand, and a gun, and a brain - that brain belonged to the lost cause of the Confederacy, to race hatred, and to revenge. And the gun belonged to American terrorism.

Since I just did a whole series of posts arguing that John Brown was justified in his violent actions against slavery and counts as a genuine American hero, even as a Founding Father of sorts for American democracy, I'm going to take it for granted that readers of Old Hickory's Weblog know my general attitude about the Confederacy and its present-day idolators.

So I've got to wonder, are these guys totally unfamiliar with American folk and country music?  Have they never heard of that sixties concept of the "anti-hero"?

It's true that the Jesse James of history was a Confederate guerrilla who took part in the murderous Quantrill raid on Lawrence, Kansas during the Civil War.  He was also a murdering bandit and gunman after the war.

But the legend of Jesse James, the thing that above all made him into a popular rebel symbol, is that he was seen as a Robin Hood type figure, robbing banks and trains and getting away with it at a time when banks and railroads were rolling roughshod over farmers and workers alike.  That's why there are folk songs about him.

This is a good, brief description of the Wild West outlaw legend, from "The Wild West" by B. Innes in The West: An Illustrated History  (1976), Henry Steel Commager, ed.:

The wagon team toiling through the rocky defile; the beautiful innocent girl, the penniless widow, and the dispossessed farmer; the lone crackshot outlaw, silhouetted against the sky; and the cloud of dust above the trail that signals the approach of the sheriff and his men - all this is familiar to anyone who has read a dime novel or seen a Western movie. Yet they would have been just as familiar six centuries ago in England. Make the year 1322, the outlaw Robin Hood, the place Sherwood Forest; let the sheriff ride out from Nottingham Town - and the story is unchanged.

The necessity to turn the outlaw into a mythical hero is born of certain well-defined social conditions. What motivation was it that could turn the near-moronic teenage killer William Bonney into the "devoted, gallant, generous" Billy the Kid? How could the treacherous and coldblooded railroad robber Dingus [Jesse] James grow into the Robin Hood of St Jo? Who found, in the drunken nymphomaniac Martha Jane Cannaray, the touching wide-eyed innocence of Calamity Jane? These myths can only grow in certain places and at certain times.

The Wild West is such a place and such a time. It begins with the conclusion of the Civil War and ends with the close of the western frontier - which coincides roughly with the close of the nineteenth century. It is peopled by alienated ex-Confederates at a loose end and ex-Union soldiers with a taste for adventure - and easy money. There are homesteaders in collision with railroad kings and cattle barons - and there are miners besotted with dreams of instant riches. And of course there are the men who recognized that the western myth was another sort of ore to mine.  (my emphasis)

Now, I'm not saying that anything dang fool thing that somebody labels as "folk music" deserves to be respected or performed.  But with popular music like anything else, we can use good sense to make judgments.  And the outlaw song is a tradition in American popular music, including a subset known as the "murder ballad".  To judge those as if they are ideological tracks is just silly.

To put this in some context, let's look at "Jesse James" a bit.  Yes, Pete Seeger recorded it.  Would somebody like to tell me that Pete Seeger promoted racism or segregation or neo-Confederate nonsnese?  It's laughable. 

Putting new words to old tunes is a popular music tradition, too.  Think Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" written to the tune of "John Brown's Body".  Woody Guthrie knew that practice well.  His most famous song, "This Land is Your Land", borrows heavily from the tune to the Carter Family song, "When the World's on Fire" composed by A.P. Carter.  And he borrowed the tune from "Jesse James" for his song "Jesus Christ", which has been recorded by U2 and Arlo Guthrie.  It casts Jesus in the outlaw-song image:

Now this song was written in New York City
By a rich man, a preacher and a slave
And if Jesus was to preach here what he preached in Gallilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave

Several leading country and pop singers did a themed album called The Legend of Jesse James, which featured Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash.  It includes one of Emmy's more haunting songs, "I Wish I Was Back in Missouri".  You're gonna tell me they were promoting neo-Confederate notions and supporting terrorism?  Please.

Maybelle and Sara Carter (of the Carter Family, as in June Carter Cash) also recorded a different song called "Jesse James" that also borrows from the melody that the Bruce Springsteen/Pete Seeger version uses:

He went down to the depot not many days ago
Something he never done before
He fell down upon his knees
And he handed up the keys
To the bank that he'd robbed the day before

Dear old Jesse, pore old Jesse
They laid Jesse James in his grave
Dear old Jesse, pore old Jesse
They laid Jesse James in his grave

Jesse was not the repenting-on-his-knees type, either.  But does that make the song sinful?

There's something weirdly literalist about this notion.  Why would someone think that a character portrayed in a song has to be taken as propaganda on the character's behalf, or as a defense of the person?  It's just kind of clueless.

Here's some other examples that come to mind along with some people who have performed them.  I could easilyexceed the single-post limit of 25,000 characters just listing ones like this.

"Tom Dooley" (it's a murder ballad, folks) - the Kingston Trio
"Pretty Boy Floyd" - Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie
"Caleb Meyer" - Gilian Welch
"Pancho and Lefty" - Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard
"John Walker's Blues" - Steve Earle
"Goodbye Earl" - the Dixie Chicks
"I Just Can't Let You Say Good-Bye - Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris
"Mama Tried" - Merle Haggard
"Folsom Prison Blues" - Johnny Cash
"Frankie and Johnnie" - Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard

Bruce Springsteen's new CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is excellent, by the way.  I recommend it highly.

The title comes from one of Pete Seeger's best known accomplishments.  His arrangement of the old Gospel hymn "We Will Overcome" became a popular labor song and was adopted by the civil rights movement.  Tell me once more how Pete Seeger was promoting neo-Confederate ideas by singing "Jesse James"?

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