August 30, 2006


-INTERVIEW: Love is red, death is blue: Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz discuss their amazing new anthology of writing about the American ballad -- and wonder whether Republicans sing better songs of passion and murder than Democrats do. (Charles Taylor, 2004-11-17, Salon)

CT: Forgive me for going relevant on you, but this week everyone is talking about national division. One of the things that struck me here is that in a lot of these songs the America that's being sung about is part of the America that the left is now being encouraged to look down on, in the wake of the election. The passage that smacked me in the head, reading it now, is the one from Steve Erickson's essay where he writes about Lincoln's second inaugural address: "He argued that in fact the country, had, for all its short history, existed as an affront to God in its embrace of slavery, that the Civil War was in fact God's retribution against America for the sin of slavery, that if the nation was destined to fight another 250 years of civil war -- one year for every year slavery existed -- in order to redeem itself, if the nation was to shed its blood to the last drop in order to cleanse itself of the sin, then that was what it would do." Reading that in a week when we hear that God won the election, and the idea that if God is made part of politics it is also the most reactionary part of politics, brought me up short. I don't agree that if the idea of God is present in politics it's reactionary, because then you don't have --

S.W.: Martin Luther King.


G.M.: Well, you know, Steve Erickson's piece is a terrifying piece of writing because he is able to achieve a kind of suspension. There's an argument he makes about there being three Americas, the one that existed before Lincoln's second inaugural, the one that existed afterward, and the one that may have only existed in Lincoln's imagination for weeks or months. And again, it's "In this part of the story, nothing happens," it's the calling up of that void, that place that is a vortex where you can suddenly be sucked into a recognition that we are playing with fire. That when he talks about American identity, the American story, the American mission, the American obligation to live up to its own promises or confront their betrayal, those things are so big, they're so frightening, that people can run from those questions in any direction.

What Steve is writing about here is Randy Newman's "Sail Away" and "Louisiana, 1927," two songs on either side of Lincoln's great divide. You know, people have often said, "Why do you have to pick these songs apart, and why do you have to analyze them, and you put so much meaning on them, and you just destroy them by burdening them with all this significance." And here's Steve Erickson, not burdening these songs with any significance but drawing a whole version of the American story out of them. He's saying, "No, it's not a question of what you put on a song. It's a question of what you can get out of a song and what you can get out of a song is maybe 10 percent of what's in it, whatever the song is." That to me is what's going on here.

S.W.: There is a ballad language that we were out to try and rediscover. And it's a language that no one can quite put a fix on. I think that one of the problems that you might have had, Charley -- and again, I don't want to be too relevant -- is that in some ways the ballad language, the music of America, was actually sung better by the Republicans than by the Democrats. The Democrats don't know how to sing that way; it sounds very technocratic. I think it's one of the reasons why the Democrats lost, actually. Whereas, whatever you think of their politics, when George Bush talks of slavery he talks of the sin of slavery. Well, that's not a whole lot different than what Abraham Lincoln was saying. Regardless of his politics, it's a language he has, and it's that language that's in danger of being lost and we wanted to recover it.

What bothered me isn't what Erickson was saying -- I liked what he was saying. What bothered me was something you're hitting on now, which is the idea that if you speak as he is speaking you are acceding to the most reactionary side of politics.

S.W.: Well, I think that's wrong ...

I do, too.

S.W.: Look, God is part of the language of America. From the first European who settled here, God was here. So let's be honest about it, what's the point in running away from it? It's there. Greil often quotes David Thomas' line, "What the ballad wants, the ballad gets." And what the ballad wants in part, some ballads, is about God, and about a life of the spirit. Indeed, it's not even just about God, it's about a Christian God, and you have to deal with that as part of the language. It's not always there, but it is there.

G.M.: You know, there was a column written by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and the same sort of thing has been written and said by all kinds of people throughout the entire election season. People were voting against their own interests, their own economic interests. If they voted for Bush, people without a lot of money, they were voting against themselves. Well, people want the opportunity to vote for more than themselves --

Someone wrote in to the Times and said they were voting their interests because their interests were more spiritual than economic.

All great songs are conservative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2006 10:45 AM

OT: WLS-AM - seems Richard II (Chicago) is running again.

And they're predicting gas to drop another dime after Labor Day.

Posted by: Sandy P at August 30, 2006 11:05 AM

Well there's that argument, but then there's a nother that fits better. Both George W Bush
and Lincoln were elected in very contentious
times (heck when one of Lincoln's rivals ends
become a Confederate brigadier, that rather
divisive circumstances. They were both what
I would call nationalist revolutionary conservatives; all though they were clearly
from the incremenentalist wing of the party.
They were both businessman, one a corporate
attorney, the other a financial entrepreneur
in the oil industry. they saw Govt as having certain responsibilities
that encurred certain uses of said power. Both
were (or in the process of their legacies being ground down by military and/or paramilitary elements that have plurality support in the populace; directed against the emancipatory nature of their political progress. What is
left out of Wilentz's & Taylor's musings is
the post war insurgent campaign by militias
like the Klan, tied with a faux reformist
campaign, to return 'the slaves back to Egypt'
as it were. The success of that campaign, along
with weariness among the Union Republican is
what lead to cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, and
the refusal to interfere in the 'internal affairs
of the Subject power.In this way, McCain is the Ulysses S. Grant analog to our current president

Posted by: narciso at August 30, 2006 7:21 PM