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  • Weird Americas Old, New, and Ongoing
  • Jon Smith (bio)

In 1997's Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus coined the phrase "the old, weird America" to designate the "territory that opens up out of " (Marcus 1997, 89) Harry Smith's six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music, which he elsewhere describes as "Bob Dylan's first true map of a republic that was still a hunch to him" and "a backdrop to the basement tapes" (88), the archive of over a hundred Americana-style songs Dylan recorded with The Band in the summer of 1967. In describing the Anthology, Marcus works hard to try to generate a sense of the uncanny and of paradox. "More deeply," he immediately adds, the 1952 anthology "is a version of [the tapes], and the basement tapes a shambling, twilight version of Smith's Anthology, which was itself anything but obvious" (88). What speaks and spooks here, shambling through the twilight, is no mere territory or map, but ghosts, and apparently foreign ones: the basement tapes constitute "palavers with a community of ghosts, . . . specters from a foreign country" (86). The anthology itself, as Marcus quotes Bruce Connor, "was like field recordings, from the Amazon, [End Page 101] or Africa, but it's here, in the United States!" (95). Is anyone surprised that all the recordings Marcus mentions are from the South?

Southernists have seen the region declared uncanny before. Much of the best work in the New Southern Studies has called attention to American, and Americanist, disavowal of "the South" as the backward exception to American exceptionalism—even as pop music scholarship has habitually treated Southern music as the archetypal artistic expression of the American folk. This disavowal, which Jennifer Greeson (1999) has shown was already in effect as early as the late eighteenth century, is structurally analogous to that underlying colonialism in general and Cold War modernization theory in particular: the idea that some parts of the globe are backward or "underdeveloped," that all nations and regions go through the same stages of development, and that the colonized or postcolonial or Third World or Global Southern nations and regions are simply a few stages behind the nations that in practice run things. The analogy has frequently been made explicit. Before Bruce Connor was born, for example, W. J. Cash famously commenced The Mind of the South by citing Carl Carmer on Alabama: "The Congo is not more different from Massachusetts or Kansas or California" (Cash 1940, xlvii). Nina Baym recalls her American studies training at Harvard in the 1960s:

Besides Faulkner, the "South" in my reading list for graduate comprehensive exams included Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, and Katherine Anne Porter. Perhaps the list was loaded with women in those pre-feminist days to imply patronizingly that Southern literature was "minor" . . . . I'll Take My Stand to be sure was on our secondary bibliography, where it figured as an example of frank cultural pathology. We "learned" our South from The Mind of the South and Cavalier and Yankee, both of which saw the idea of the Southern patriciate as a fabulation. . . . And why, in this Yankee view, were the agrarians so desperate for comforting falsehood? Above all, because of slavery: because on the one hand they wanted it back again, and because on the other they knew full well that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries no society could pretend to a high level of civilization if race slavery was its condition of existence.

(1999, 659-60) [End Page 102]

"Frank cultural pathology"; "high level of civilization"; the strategic elision of the eighteenth century, when the North, too, held slaves; and the disavowal of the long economic dependence on slavery of the Enlightenment itself—all in the racial context of 1960s Boston! Most recently, of course, the response to the Katrina disaster brought forth from blue-state punditry an outpouring of shock that such Third World conditions could obtain in these United States.

Less noted within the New Southern Studies, however, has been the way this process paradoxically also tends to position such disavowed, "backward" places as charmingly outside the modern marketplace, that is, as what marketing theorist Douglas Holt calls "populist worlds"—whence...


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