Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Texas Playboy Mansion

The late, great John Hartford.

"Pumpkin Center Barn Dance": Bob Wills and the Dialectics of Hope, Part One

Sad Billionaire, back again, reporting for duty.

First things first, here is an incredibly sublime blend of honky tonk kitsch and Sanrio/anime aesthtetics:

This is the world in which I want to live!

Why the jump in this article's title from Bob Wills (the pioneer of Western Swing music, whose band cavorts merrily in the film clip linked above) to the classic title of Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch's multivolume work on utopia and popular literature? Because living in Texas has taught the Sad Billionaire a thing or two about the contradictory nature (and confusing politics) of imaginary perfect worlds. Many Texans consider the Lone Star State to be a kind of utopia-- superimposing a filter that blurs out disturbing reminders of the state's brutal and racist past. Marxists call this kind of wishful thinking "Panglossian" after a bufoonishly optimistic character in Voltaire's hilarious novel "Candide." These same Marxists have had occassion to wear this term of opprobrium out in the years since one famous Texan started transforming various hurting sectors of the globe into shining examples of the best that can be acheived in this, "the best of all possible worlds."

I started thinking about this topic when I heard the classic hobo utopian anthem, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" pastiched in a commercial for a new Wendy's beef sandwich. Those who care for this song, and especially those who have witnessed its awesomely beautiful, tear-inducing interpretation by frail and ailing John Hartford in the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" music documentary "Down From The Mountain" undoubtedly share my sense that this appropriation is kind of vomitacious.

Here are most of the lyrics to "Mac" MacLintock's paean to the anti-work anti-ethic:

On a summer day
In the month of May
A burly bum came hiking
Down a shady lane
Through the sugar cane
He was looking for his liking
As he roamed along
He sang a song
Of the land of milk and honey
Where a bum can stay
For many a day
And he won't need any money


Oh the buzzin' of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the big rock candy mountain

There's a lake of gin
We can both jump in
And the handouts grow on bushes
In the new-mown hay
We can sleep all day
And the bars all have free lunches
Where the mail train stops
And there ain't no cops
And the folks are tender-hearted
Where you never change your socks
And you never throw rocks
And your hair is never parted


In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
The jails are made of tin.
You can slip right out again,
As soon as they put you in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In "Down From the Mountain," when Hartford gets to the line about "hanging the jerk who invented work," one apprehends (imagines? wishes for?) the whole audience's collective assent. The same audience, one might add, would no doubt identify with totally contradictory sentiments: songs that celebrate the purifiying virtues of honest toil, say, or to take some non-musical examples, the columns of Thomas Friedman or the domestic labor policies of the Bush Administration.

Clearly, the effects of this kind of utopian dreaming in music-- the non-Wendy's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" or the gleeful carousing of the Texas Playboys in the film clip-- are, at best, partial and temporary. But no less real or meaningful for that reason. There is thus an alternative way to think about utopian fantasies, even the dreary romanticizations of Texas found in Ford truck commercials and the Hitler-youth -oid big-hat/new country tributes to the land of the two-step and the chicken-fried steak and mostly only white people and the old-fashioned not gay missionary-position Aryan sex. Even the worst and least imaginative of these fantasies registers the dissonance between the world as it is today-- unhappy, unfair, intensely brutal and unremittingly idiotic-- and the world as we might like it.

It's a start, no?

1 comment:

femme feral said...

O sad billionaire, let's try and make that little world of sanrio-meets country kitsch!