Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Music, Food & the Idea of the 'Folk'
Contra Les Blank

I wouldn't feel comfortable writing about Les Blank if I thought I might do him more harm than good. It's not that I expect Blank to heed my words of wisdom, either--he should go his own way. To film such worthy yet little known (and rarely seen) musicians as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas is obviously a public service, but Blank is a lot more than a public servant--he's a man of vision. Yet although Blank is revered among devotees of folk music and/or documentary, he's a name at best to most culturati in the circle (rock and roll specialists and movie buffs), and farther out from the center he's not even a name. This is unjust--he deserves to be. Having taken in everything but the early work program at his Museum of Modern Art retrospective last summer, I can unequivocally recommend all of his music films (except Christopher Tree, of which more later). But I might add that it would probably be best for your suspension of disbelief if you didn't see them all at once.

I didn't hesitate to gulp Blank's work down myself because disbelief--or at least critical perspective--wasn't something I wanted to avoid. Blank's celebrations of rural and post-rural life--most of them situated in the Louisiana-East Texas music belt--had been inspiring the considered enthusiasm of so many of our mutual contemporaries, for so many years that I knew I'd be hard pressed to find a more eloquent spokesman for the folkie mentality, and although I didn't feel hostile I did feel polemical. Not that I expect this distinction to cut much ice with folkies, most of whom resent even the label these days. A defensive bunch, folkies always have been. In the late '30s and early '40s, when folk music was first equated with "people's" music by would-be culture commissars, the enemy was European formalism very much out of favor with a C.P. suddenly committed to an Americanized Popular Front. In the late '50s and early '60s, when personal freedom, social justice, and traditional music formed an indivisible trinity for a less ideological generation, the enemy was conformity, represented by commercial sellout on the one hand and straight academia on the other. These days a more generalized ressentiment--focused mostly on the media (and the record business)--detracts from good work and good sense among superstars and primitive capitalists alike. At the moment, Blank is in the latter category, and although I think he deserves fame, I'm not sure I'd like what he'd do with it. Folkies react even more strangely than most people to fame--there's no place in their world view for it.

Me, I swore off acoustic guitars for life the first time I ever heard Joan Baez hit a high note. Even after exempting country blues, I couldn't make this vow stick--I respected Pete Seeger and couldn't resist Bob Dylan, and there was no denying the occasional unplugged rightness of reformed folkies like Jim McGuinn, Neil Young, and Jerry Garcia (not to mention that of the Beatles and the Stones). But I blamed folkies for much of the sentimentality and gentility that cropped up in rock and roll in the late '60s, and by extension distrusted the counterculture fascination with "authenticity" as well. Folkie artiness rather than Sgt. Pepper I regarded as the true font of rock pretentiousness. It was folkie alienation, I thought, that induced white singers to caricature blacks instead of adapting the rhythmic and timbral usages of blues to their own deliveries. And it was folkie nostalgia (in the face of a stubborn oppressive present) that dispersed the counterculture's political potential down the garden path of pastoral escapism.

Yet as the always unlikely notion of salvation through "rock culture" became an insupportable embarrassment and the pull of the mid-'70s settled in, my feelings softened. Some of my favorite artists of the decade--Raitt, Prine, Wainwright, McGarrigles, Roches--cut their chops on the coffee house circuit. Record companies like Flying Fish, Rounder, Philo, and Alligator proved that it was possible for strong-willed musicians and entrepreneurs to circumvent conglomerate capitalism. And as I took the time to concentrate on the blues albums I'd been hoarding over the years--and ventured occasionally into mountain music and more esoteric styles--the folk movement's passion for preservation began to enrich my life first hand.

It may seem obvious to say that Les Blank's music documentaries express the folkie passion for preservation, but it's not, because I really mean express. Unlike his sometime sound man and de facto collaborator Chris Strachwitz--whose Arhoolie label has underwritten many Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier albums (as well as the soundtrack to Blank's Chulas Fronteras) and whose retail outlet, Downhome Music in El Cerrito, California, is a walk-in bargain bin that doesn't exclude r&b or c&w from the canon. Blank is an artist rather than an archivist, an interpreter rather than a collector. His films illuminate the music itself only indirectly, except for Chulas Fronteras, about the hybrid norteņo style of the Mexican-American border, they're short on memorable performances. But they say a lot about the way Blank relates to music. And though it's often argued that the images which recur (and recur) in Blank's work--sky and water, rails and roads, tilled fields and jerrybuilt houses, wimmin--are integral to the musics he celebrates, that's too easy. To point out that the shimmering lyricism of his sky-and-water shots recalls the art of Stan Brakhage (or Walter de la Mare) more than that of earthlings like Hopkins, Lipscomb, and Chenier isn't to suggest that Brakhage (or de la Mare) is some sort of influence. Who cares? But it is to insist that Blank's nature mysticism derives directly from the blues. The black youth who communes with a field of flowers in Blank's fictionalized 10-minute filmpoem The Sun's Gonna Shine--intended as a companion piece to The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins and based on an autobiographical yarn told by Hopkins himself--belongs in Blank's other 1968 film, a foolish account of a love-in. And I'm sure no bluesman was holding a knife to Blank's throat when he dubbed his Berkeley-based production company Flower Films, which is still what it's called today.

Blank is hardly a country blues purist. His first music film was a sketch about Dizzy Gillespie highlighted by the trumpeter's lecture-demonstration on staccato and legato. And like most folkies he extends his affections these days even to music that includes electric instruments and drums--as long as it's indigenous to a specific locality, undistoretd by mass communication. But it is country blues--in all their intense emotionality, sharp detail, and bewildering associative logic--that his films recall. Blank's textures are wonderful. With a brief shot of a set of broken steps or giggles at a grange dance he makes the worlds he celebrates almost palpable, and with one lovingly extended sequence--in my favorite, a fisherman prepares a mouth-watering meal that utilizes a can of Hunt's Tomato Sauce--he can suggest a whole lifestyle in all its beguiling inconsistency. His passion for depicting regional food is so voracious that even non-admirers find that his movies make them hungry. But just because his films strive for this kind of slow, sensuous concreteness, they are entertaining the way country blues are--that is, people can be expected to dance to them only when nothing snappier is at hand. Unlike Clifton Chenier or the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Blank doesn't have much of a beat; his logic is associative indeed, offering little in the way of narrative structure or trenchant analysis.

It's true, of course, that some sort of analysis is implied in the pace, shape, and feel of films which (as Hal Aigner harrumphed in Film Quarterly) "stress the interrelatedness of all existence." The sequential calm of A Well Spent Life is as appropriate to Mance lipscomb, who spent 65 years farming and playing his blues in rural Texas before an anthropologist introduced him to the outside world, as the jumpy restlessness of Blank's portrait of Lightnin' Hopkins is to a hard-living Houston-based pro whose general unreliability the filmmaker seems reluctant to suggest in more specific terms. Spend It All, about the cajuns of the bayou country, contrasts similarly with the more unsettled Always for Pleasure, about Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans. But this is pretty vague for analysis, and Blank usually does provide something a little more programmatic. Almost all of his films include at least one encomium to the simple, spontaneous life by a plain-spoken (but evidently ideological) interviewee. And two of his movies sit back patiently while a septuagenerian complains that things move too fast in these modern times.

The advantage of letting others lay down platitudes for you is well-known, but irony or aesthetic distance is not what Blank is after. not that he lacks a sense of humor. There are plenty of natural (or barroom) philosophers spouting nonsense in his films, as a connoisseur of human idiosyncrasy, he probably goes out looking for fools. Something else happens, though, when Mance Lipscomb extols a time in which you just hewed down a branch for a baseball bat, or when a young cajun accordion-maker describes the satisfactions of craft. These folk heroes are speaking for Blank--or for Blank as he wishes he could be. When he lifts a phrase lilke "always for pleasure" or "spend it all" out of an interview for a title, he's obviously valorizing it--and identifying with it.

Folkies are accused of condescending to the subcultures they care about, which is often true enough, but as far as I'm concerned glorification is almost as bad. Not just because it distorts the subcultures in much the same way condescension does, and not just because it tends to idealize poverty either. What bothers me most is that it's invariably fueled by anomie. It's only natural to feel out of place in the mass society of late capitalism, but for just that reason you have to be on guard against the way acute alienation can skew your perspective, inducing you to like things mostly because they aren't what you like, or to seek salvation rather than solace in alternatives. Blank, who clearly believes that imperfection is a sign of vitality, is too sensitive to indulge in out-and-out culture worship. But he's a glorifier nevertheless, to such an extent that I was moved to phone him and ask whether there were things about his subjects that he didn't like. He allowed as how there were--cajun racism, for instance. When I told him I hadn't caught that in his movies, he reminded me of a few images that I had in fact noticed and at some lev el gotten; it's a tribute to Blank's subtlety, I suppose, that I hadn't been able to tell whether the filmmaker got them too. But Blank agreed that for the most part he just left the racism out. In general, he told me, he puts into his films "things that I would want to see again when I watch the movie." That was why the people in his films were never shown watching television, although the sets in the homes he visited got a lot of use.

Blank wasn't especially inclined to theorize, of course--he likes images, not abstractions. He used the word "alienation," but seemed more comfortable with the concept he posed against it: "fun." Blank likes people who know how to have fun. Not that he's confused as to the source of such knowledge. The "strong, warm feeling," in the communities he documents is a funciton of stability: "People don't have to worry about who they are; who they are is set up fo rthem by their culture. They know who they are, where they belong, how they're supposed to act." Although he's not the settling down type himself--"the idea of living with the same woman all my life freaks me out a little"--he's attracted to those who are, and if he sometimes feels like an intruder when he's working, the payback is that at other times he feels like a member of the family. Clearly, this is a man whose aversion to alienation is intense--like the classic mass culture theorists, he even resents having to go see a movie in a darkened theatre.

Blank is too sophisticated to settle for simplistic equations. Far from insisting on purity, he knows that among cajuns and norteņo musicians cultural strength is identical to hybrid adaptability. No anti-urban dogmatist, he celebrates city people who know how to have fun--who consciously combat the year-round distraction that is urban existence by focusing their lives around the once-a-year blowout of Mardi Gras. But he's not exactly a fan of corruption or diffusion, either, nor a lover of cities (or suburbs--he grew up in one, in Florida). And he can't stand the dissemination and centralization that combine to shape American culture. Nowhere is this more vivid than in his most ambitious film: A Poem Is a Naked Person, a feature-length study of Leon Russell produced (that is, financed) by Russell and his onetime partner Denny Cordell, both admirers of regional music themselves. The producers never freed the film for commercial release.

A Poem Is a Naked Person is an arty horror movie of a documentary. Confronted by what happens to regional music a few generations later, Blank abandons subtlety for an overstated visual gadgetry that screams repulsion out of control. The film opens at Russell's country studio with the obligatory water shot--only this time, a snake slithers beneath the surface, and he or she pretty much sets the tone. In this film inebriated blather is ominously stupid and insular, a wedding is an appalling union of synthetic hip and suburban square, and music-making is the occasion of a studio pro's brutally misogynist doggerel. Another snake--this one a pet constrictor who devours a baby chick before our very eyes--also plays a crucial role, mediating in the montage between people gawking at a Russell concert and people gawking at a building demolition, which latter obviously strikes Blank as the paradigmatic modern entertainment.

Not that I think a kind film would have been more accurate. Even at his commercial peak Russell was a grotesque, an Oklahoma homeboy who did his greatest work in the studios of El Lay, a star by accident driven to fuse exaggerated rootsy eccentricities with masscult shtick and flash. By the time of the film he'd spent years inciting people to boogie in hockey rinks, which did nothing for his idealism. But the contradictions of Russell's art are a lot more interesting than the editing suggests when it lingers on Russell's bemused, noncommital repetition of Blank's Big Question: "If I didn't get paid for singing would I sing?" That's like asking him whether he's stopped cheating his backup singers, and I'm pretty sure I can answer for him: "In the shower, sure, but in a hockey rink, no sir."

I mean, all Russell wants to do is resynthesize blues, gospel and country--third-generation genres that themselves meld the usages of individual (first-generation) and regional (second-generation) styles, genres whose potential jumps out at you when George Jones tosses off the most memorable music of the film--into a language comprehensible to the media-saturated post-regional world. This is the world where Blank makes his living. It is the only place where the technology (and capital) essential to his line of work can be found, the only place where a concept like "documentary" could even arise. And by making documentaries Blank participates in the dissemination he can't stand as surely as John A. Lomax did half a century ago. Given who he is and where he was born, documentaries are a loving and appropriate way for him to express his feeling for culture. I have little doubt that his work is more valuable than Leon Russell's. But no matter how ill-conceived, compromised, self-serving, and ultimately fucked up Russell's attempt to concoct a fourth-generation form may be, no matter how distasteful his particular defeat by the seemingly invincible contradictions of mass culture, at least he's trying to gain ground. Blank is stuck in a holding action.

Not always, I grant you--he does sometimes make movies about modern Americans who create rather than receive their culture. But if Leon Russell is fucked up, how are we to describe the celebrants in Blank's love-in movie, aptly entitled God Rejects Us When We Work but Loves Us When We Dance? (When you dance that clumsily even God doesn't have a choice.) What are we to make of Christopher Tree, who spends some 14,000 frames running between the percusison devices that clutter his capacious back yard in a "spontaneous concert of . . . cosmic music," a "concert" greeted stonily by an audience that had just cheered Blank's tongue-in-mouth chicken-factory industrial as if it were Lonely Boy or Reefer Madness. And just how charitable must we be to the California wassailers who dominate the early cut of Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers that kicked off Blank's MOMA retrospective? These were classic folkie elitists, eager to prove to posterity that their affinity for "the stinking rose" (garlic's actually a lily, the phrasemaker concedes, but rose sounds better) delivers them from the sterility of a deodorized Amerika and it is to Blank's credit that by now he has for the most part eliminated them from his film. What I call folkie elitism he diagnosed as "garlic chic." "It looked like everyone was having fun," he told me. "But when I looked at the film it didn't look like they were having fun." Blank will seek out "people from longer traditions" for the final version.

All of which suggest that maybe garlic isn't even as good as one mother--that unless who you are was set up by your culture long before you were old enough to become aware of such categories, all of your attempts to compensate by resynthesizing "longer traditiosn" are futile. For whenever this great folkie attempts to celebrate his fellows, all those alienated middle-class types longing for roots, his work turns silly and awkward. He must rely on preexisting regional subcultures, subcultures he knows are probably doomed, and make movies that will at once guarantee them a kind of immortality and contribute in a small but metaphorically significant way to their downfall.

As I hope I've made clear, I wouldn't take all this trouble poking holes if I didn't think Blank was onto something important. Another filmmaker, Jean Renoir, offerred the definitive formulation: "It is practically the only question of the age, this question of primitivism and how it can be sustained in the face of sophistication." But though the successes and failures of Blank's work underline the difficulties that inhere in this question, only in the union struggle of Chulas Fronteras, his richest film sociologically, does he acknowledge the political difficulties that lay beyond it--unless he's really one of those who believes that if only each and every one of us would pursue a craft the world would be set aright. For this question of economic equality and how it can be reconciled with the imperatives of the individual fulfillment is also practically the only question of the age.

Rock critics have been groping at Renoir's question for a decade. I know it by the way of Stanley Crouch, who finds his own answer in Sonny Rollins and Muhal Richard Abrams. But while I find the jazz response eloquent, exciting, and essential, I also find it culturally incomplete--if not elitist, then at least exclusionist and meritocratic, and if not too abstract, then at least too civilized. I don't like the folkies' reverent style of traditionalism, but I do share the folkie attraction to . . . what? Basics? Simplistics? Primitivism? Atavism? I'm fascinated by Les Blank partly because I'm not sure.

What I am sure is that the idea of the "folk" is somewhere near the heart of most great rock and roll. Elvis Presley's lewd, juvenile-delinquent race-mixing shocked Americans not merely on its own terms but because it embodied the sullen, self-sufficient uncontrollability that establishments always fear in the underclasses they exploit, and at some level Elvis knew this. Never mind self-sufficiency--the boy was smitten with self-love (or maybe what the French call, less pejoratively, amour-propre). He was drawn to the basic simplistic primitive/atavistic in himself and his regional culture even if such terms never entered his vocabulary, compelled to accentuate a "folk" identity embodied for him by the black bluesman. Worse than that, he wasn't at all shy about imposing this identity on the world outside. And worst of all he was then transformed into Elvis the Rocker, an original text for all the great rock and rollers who came after him. To learn from Elvis was not to learn from Arthur Crudup, and to learn from the Beatles was not to learn from Elvis. Rock's essence was reduced to a nut of rebelious cultural recidivism.

All of this has always made genteel observers very nervous. Universal Human Truths are all well and good only if their "folk" expressions are understood to be naive, hence inferior to the "civilized" ones. But that doesn't help us answer Renoir's question. I believe Elvis was driven to deal with a reality that won't fade away, and though the musicians Les Blank celebrates tend to be domesticated, less defiant about their unreconstructed autonomy than Elvis, they're all in touch with the same wellspring of psychic energy. I find it significant, however, that the two whose (defiant) autonomy is most explicit, Lightnin' Hopkins and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, are both tied to cities, and that both are halfway to rock and roll. For like most leftists, I continue to subscribe to a basically technological analysis of the other great question of that age, the one about economic equality. And technology still means cities--centralization and dissemination. So that, inflated as it may seem--and I'm aware that I'm getting very metaphoric here--I still find in rock and roll a kind of social paradigm, the seed of a solution.

I used to think folkies were mere sentimentalists. Now a thousand pieces of data suggest that it's not so simple. Agrarian Marxists in Cambodia and Islamic revolutionaries in Iran attempt to answer the two great questions of the age with results that are very much less than utopian. Socialist historians seek out the progressive stands in deceased or obsolescent local traditions. Antinukers envision a post-urban planet. Working-class youths idealize the mass-produced primitivism of countless heavy metal bands. Rock and roll regenerates itself in the local scenes of New York and London and countless other cities. In version s worthy of both hope and horror the "folk" is clearly very much with us, if not as a conscious concept than as an underlying force. It's unlikely to go away. In fact, the evidence indicates that we need it; I certainly do.. But somebody had better rescue it from the romantic tradition and put it into the future where it belongs.

Not that I know how. In fact, all I can go out on is the tiniest hint. When I began thinking about this piece, one question stuck in my mind: Why was it, given my reservations about Les Blank's music, that I found myself enthralled by another aspect of his work: the food? For though I've only alluded to it here, the gathering, preparation, and consumption of what we eat--or rather, what Blank's people eat--is so prominent in his film that I've yet to meet anyone whose primary response to the work wasn't gustatory. It's not the garlic chic, not the ideology, just the food itself--countless peasant cuisines in all their vulgar, colorful, spicy, nutritious glory. I actually prepared Ed Ward's revision of Blank's version of Irma Thomas's red beans and rice (too much cayenne, Ward's fault). And I can still smell the freshly picked bulbs being tossed into their polymer buckets in Blank's garlic movie, even though MOMA wouldn't let Blank use his Smellaround process, which involves the preparation of garlic butter in the rear of the auditorium. About food I'm in almost complete agreement with him: The world needs fewer Whoppers (though I'd hate to see them disappear entirely) and a lot more red beans and rice. So why don't we agree about music too?

The answer is hardly profound. It has to do with finite and infinite resources. Food is finite, and if it's to serve the imperatives of individual fulfillment--that is, be good--while remaining generally available, it had better be cheap. Mass production has proven a poor way to achieve this. Much better to idealize poverty a little, learn how to live from those with a genius for subsistencce. But music isn't finite, it's information, and despite the inevitable growing pains there's no theoretical limit on how much information we can create, absorb, and synthesize. In fact, as the ecologists insist so passionately, if we don't increase our capacity for information damn quick, we might not have an age to ask us questions anymore.

Primitivism and sophistication, get it? The kind of musical information Blank provides is necessary. But it's not sufficient. And as Mance Lipscomb might put it, that's all she wrote.

Village Voice, Nov. 19, 1979