Junebug versus Hurricane


Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

A Queer Conversation With Amy Ray

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Following Amy Ray’s all-too-brief stop through New York supporting her new album Lung of Love (DaemonRecords.com), she was kind enough to sit down and speak with Junebug vs Hurricane, two faithful and always talkative listeners who, as you may already well know, live and breathe for Amy Ray’s music. 

The following piece summarizes our interview with Amy Ray and was first published for Velvet Park  (www.velvetparkmedia.com), so many special thanks to them for helping this come together. 

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Amy Ray is a harmonizer. She sings to get along. She even agreed to sit down with two fast talkers called Junebug and Hurricane – one a bitter old Yankee, the other an original Southerner young enough to know better. With these two it was good thing Amy Ray has what we call “a listening voice.” We nearly talked her ear off.  But that rich, calm and ever-yearning tone — the butch voice of Amy Ray — kept it all together.

We started late on a too-hot and blistering day in downtown Manhattan. Amy Ray was exhausted, on the road, just finishing an interview for WNYC public radio: a perfect venue that suits Ray’s call out into the wilderness of the nation across the radio waves, those waves mixing with her presence on Youtube and, most recently, on vinyl. Her new album Lung of Love, reviewed here, has been in our ears and on our tongues for some time now. It was, for us, a relief to finally sit down and hash out some of our ideas and inspirations with our faithful co-conspirator.

“Do people call you ma’am?”

Amy Ray: “Really polite southern boys, always.”

Imagine the three of us seated in a deserted deli called “Jazzy’s” on Manhattan’s lower west side: a menopausal Hurricane, a dumbstruck Junebug and our dear Amy Ray: three queers who know what it feels like to be out of time, who know something about lives of humidity, futility and queer belatedness.

Amy Ray says she’s always been “a little behind.” She recalls how meeting the members of the Durham-based band The Butchies in the late 1990s radicalized her, helped her figure out “where [she] was coming from, but didn’t even know it.”

She describes this consolidation-through-community as active intuition: becoming aware of herself, overcoming a more staid, middle-classness by learning how to join in and move in step with queer community.

Amy Ray shuttles between going out–the road–and sticking to her place. A resident of a rural north Georgia town–an expatriate Atlantan–she has dreams of hosting queer salons on her own turf. Migration, a journey, every-changing formation across boundaries, is the main theme in Lung of Love. This latest formation picks up flight from songs like “Birds of a Feather,” with its plaintive,”If we are birds of a feather//Why can’t we migrate?”

Ray loves community–being in a band, if not being the leader of one. She says that she’s not interested in being the sexy rock star; she wants her audience to feel sexy, to be inspired by her grooves. In songs from the last two albums, like “Bus Bus” and “When You’re Gone You’re Gone,” Greg Griffith, producer, and Melissa York, drummer and instigator, add a certain r and b swagger, a timeless and sexy sound that Amy hadn’t quite put her finger on in previous self-produced work.

Community requires solidarity, but Amy Ray fights stolidity. Transformations–of gender, politics, ethics–fascinate Amy Ray. In “She’s Got To Be” Ray asks “Is the body just a cage?” The answer is always yes and no. In Ray’s vision, people come apart and they come together: in butch/femme relationships, through bodily transitions, anti-racisms, in moments of encounter between species and in the notes and harmonies of the songs she sings.

Of the people in her life who are, as she says, “changing form,” Ray is sympathetic and attuned to their processes. Transitioning is a path Ray “might have chosen . . . if [she] were in another generation.” She “loves the trajectory” of these new men who must “go back to learn to hang on to their feminism” or, she warns, “they’re going to become one of the privileged gate-keepers of the world who we fight against.”

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For Ray, change sometimes comes in the form of not-changing, of, as she says, “waking up in the morning and saying, “this is you,” or recognizing “I don’t want to be in this body but at the same time I don’t want to change it.” The refrain in “She’s Got To Be” (“She’s got to be with me always// To make sense of the skin I’m in”) sings of and, ultimately, through this quotidian dilemma of managing self-love with her responses to and responsibilities in the outer world. “A partner,” as she says, to the title song on her new record, “She’s Got To Be” is, as Ray puts it, “both a love song to my partner and to myself,” she says that the meanings of the song morph every time she sings it. Like a form of Christian Mysticism, this song weighs and balances the mutually defining processes of Ray learning “to love myself and my partner.” It is as if the song becomes the body it talks about; the creation of an experience brought forth by her voice.

Lung of love, this failing breath//The compass of a heart that won’t rest

The murmur’s beat, the stalling gait//The compass of the heart that won’t wait

Every queer that rises must, one day, converge. The title song “Lung of Love” takes up a new approach to the organic expression of feeling.  The heart, now an over-determined and perhaps overly-cited, source of angst and joy, takes a back seat in this song that conjures up feelings that, like breath itself, make us and constantly fail us: “We are learning to breathe–we will pursue this trick our whole lives. And when we have finally mastered it we will become the breath–there will be no more separation.”

In her wisdom Amy Ray has produced a record that sings with confidence and that seems more self-assured than anything either of us have listened to in a long while: by her or by any other contemporary music makers. If there is a reason for this, though, it is not just age and maturity that give this record, and indeed its title song, its depth of meaning and of pleasure. Mysteries reveal themselves throughout the album the same way they do in nature: through the experience of time passing through and by our ever-failing bodies. In the end, Ray sings: “I pray that you get this tune//And that it don’t leave you lonely// This fruitless sorrow we feel//We come by it honestly.”

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Her butch voice sounds so smooth, made up of vibrations we can hear come together. It’s a voice that tries to erase itself, saying “I guess I should have been listening.” And yet it still sings. The voice–that she has honed, that we all enjoy and that adds a sweet and sexy swagger to all of her songs–keeps it together for our ears that wait and listen.

Part of Ray’s new composure and more sure, deep voice comes through in her not being afraid, these days, of exhibiting a little grouchiness, or of demanding a little more. “Glow” is sarcastic about low blows and lower goals. As Ray says, “If that’s [my] best day, well then, I’ve got more work to do . . .” But sometimes Ray wishes people would just calm down, stop “trying to win.” Relationships, in particular, can seem like endless occasions for complaint. The road song that in “Bus Bus” (from Didn’t It Feel Kinder) had its “heart on vibrate,” still trying out the “lovesick troubadour” routine that in “Bird in the Hand” has worn out, the femme just saying “get in line// stop your wandering.” In Lung of Love‘s “I Didn’t” the road runs out and the butch-femme couple are “Just looking for a fight// to make all that hurt seem right.” And, yes, all these songs do make the hurt seem right.

With melodious complaints,”Do You Have to Be the Rolling Train// Do You have to be the wounded bird// Do You have to be the only voice I hear, crying in the wilderness?” Ray is building a trove of songs memorializing a relation of love that is becoming historical as we listen, as the tune fades. Butches and femmes. To the butch, femmes are women who categorically did not belong to us and yet give themselves to us. The femme in this song–Ray’s latest chapter in this unsung, and possibly dying, lesbian tradition–is always pushing: “we got this mountain we got to climb,” and Ray, riffing on her own song, laughs: “I’m weary!” She’s weary of having to play and replay the past in her own relationships and in our communities. “I Didn’t” sings of and camps the queer relationship: it reacts to the well-known form of processing with a kind of dismissal: no, I’m not your parent’s alcoholism or your ex-lover’s aggression. Amy Ray wants you to know: She didn’t.

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In her own world and in our queer communities, Ray sings, observes and listens; she sings in order to get us to harmonize, in order for our experiences to collectively overcome their circumstances.  If she’s weary, it’s because she finds herself in a world she didn’t create. If her songs have any political import it is that they carry with them, and in their refrains, a utopian overcoming of our present circumstances,  a breath of something-else-to-come that may be somewhere off in the distance.

Amy Ray doesn’t like easy slogans. She didn’t even always like our easy reads of her songs, which trade on doubles–in theme, metaphor and intention. “Give It A Go” takes up the problem of gay suicides and the national ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, improving on that slogan with her way cooler, “stick around for the show.” But it’s the music from the mysterious past, and Ziggy Stardust himself, who returns to the jumping bridge. Ziggy, the glam rocker returns from Ray’s childhood, a “touchstone” from a time of innocence, when “we didn’t even know all the words.” But some breath returns, though it can’t save everyone. Ray admits that she’s had a hard time talking about what she perceives as a campaign that “square[d] out” with too much celebrity involvement and too little of a sense for the rich bestiary of loveable losers and freaks. Too little of what Flannery O’ Connor would appreciate as the sacrifice of the freaks, the way they are “a channel to the creator,” Ray says.

Everything that rises must converge. This is Ray’s migration, her movement and transformation. She migrates harmonies across borders, species, all sorts of bodies. When asked about her tendency to make deep connections, she explains that her father was a radiologist, a reader of X-rays, and that these images filled her house growing up, “It’s just the lens I see things through.” This lens, it seems, is about the body that waits to breathe; the world-to-come that lies, waiting to emerge in our very next breath.

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She’s Got To Be

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

July 2011


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  The queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the image

the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve always had but never clearly felt or understood.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything I need it to be: an anthem about losing gracefully.   It is resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.



“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.



No Thoughts On Writing

Stop the Music for a Minute

fit to be tied

Taylor Black

May 5, 2010

No Thoughts on Writing

My reading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z could not have come at a better—or, depending on how you look at it, worse—time in my life as a thinker and reclusive academic.  Telling as it may be, most of my energies and worries lately have been about my profession and my professional community.  Specifically, I have been concerned about the prescriptive and sometimes limited ways in which scholarship and critical discourse get carried out and received in contemporary academia.  You see, I have had a sinking feeling over the past few years that the well of what we call “critical analysis” might have run dry long ago—that maybe there are only so many arguments that we can make as academics and cultural theorists without eating ourselves alive or, worse, devolving into a world where everyone is arguing and no one is listening.

Thankfully, M. Barthes’ essay seems to be heaven-sent: sent at just the right time and delivering just the right message for my world-weary soul.  While it seems to have been decided that both academic labor and cultural theory ought to be affirmative, positivist and invested in the endless production of arguments and new ideas, S/Z focuses on the creative aspects of writing and reading in order to imagine new ways of thinking about conducting flows of thought, literature and ideology. The classical, prescriptive concept of a text is a religious one.  Even in spite of years of post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is still a certain reverence and awe given to pieces of literature and philosophy that holds onto the assumption that there are definitive answers, connections, metaphors and clues imbedded inside the pages of a book that, with the proper equipment and know-how, can be dug up and put on display for all to see.

The compulsion we as academics have to argue the truth or the validity of a text treat the process of reading in a liturgical manner.  The goal of these sorts of academic regulations and conventions represent a literary ideology: a “monster” that those of us employed in the profession of scholarship and academic reading that makes dead objects of pieces of literature and paranoid consumers out of its poor, pitiful readers.[1] All the rituals—the ten minute talk, the twenty page paper, the conference presentation, the question and answer period, the research, the thesis, the argument, the point—that we maintain in the holy name of professionalism and what’s often referred to as good academic work are only ways in which we foreclose the creative in the name of the critical, leave out the listening in the name of the prescriptive reading and unfortunately allow for the kind of prose that even the writer themselves can’t bear to read once it’s done.

There are, even as I’m writing these very words, scores of undergraduate students whispering to each other in the cold, dead halls of English departments across the world, trying to figure out what this text or that essays is about or represents so that they may walk into class with a confident air about them, prepared to tell their teachers just what they’ll expect to be hearing.  This habit of approaching pieces of literature as dead object that contain within them mummified information that the professional scholar must necessarily be able to seek out and cite like some sort of necrophilic archaeologist is what Barthes refers to as “the readerly.”  The ultimate goal of the readerly reading of a text is to sort out right away and without a doubt what it is that a book represents.  Sort of like writing an obituary, this kind of consumption of a piece of writing proclaims with theological certainty how an object of literature should be remembered.  It carves it into stone.

Failure to comprehend a literary work or piece it together so that it might be explained to those poor, lost sophomoric souls roaming the halls of academia everywhere is exactly what the readerly attempts to avoid in its self-confident, almost scientific rendering of a text.  The same finality that gets carried by an obituary is, in Barthes own words, a product of the readerly: “To depart/to travel/to arrive/to stay: the journey is saturated.  To end, to fill, to join, to unify—one might say this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear: that of omitting a connection.”[2] The idea behind readerliness, and indeed behind what’s considered responsible literary scholarship, is that professional duty lies in the academic’s ability to succinctly and effortlessly piece various works of literature together—both in and of themselves as well as in conjunction, or religious association, with each other.  Once someone is able to successfully defend and articulate their own positions on this or that literary body then they can call themselves—at least to those who will listen—an expert, nay a doctor of literary analysis.

So, while Barthes refers to the readerly text as simply what we conceive of as a “classical text,”[3] as a thing, I also believe he has imagined it for us as a process.  The experience of consuming a classical text allows for a certain kind of freedom, he says, that allows them to decide “either to accept or reject the text.”  Readerly reading is, then, “nothing more than a referendum…[representing] what can be read but not written.”[4] Both the archaeological ways in which, as I have described, works of literature get approached, taken apart and put back together as well as the pious manner in which literature gets remembered and associated weigh this freedom that Barthes lays out for us.  The “right” of scholarship and academic reading lies in the ability of the professional critic to have something distinctive and utterly, horribly communicable to say about the mass of literature that they indulgently refer to as their “field of research.”

There is no pleasure in the holy kingdom of academic literary studies, only proclamations, theses and one defended paper after another, marching off into the abyss.  The rolling hills of this great dark land are filled with the gravestones of classic, readerly, texts and teeming with busy-bodied academics and critics searching, digging and scratching away at surfaces looking for the one last idea that hasn’t yet been uncovered, the decomposing trace of something, anything, that hasn’t already been said.

And then there’s academic writing.  We have become so professionalized, so very guarded about what it is we say and do as professional scholars that we have let our fears and conventions get the best of us.  Just as there is no pleasure in the act of readerly reading, there is also no fun in the writing of critical analysis.  When what you’re told you have to do is make an argument, prove your point or exhibit some sort of fool-proof comprehension of a text then there’s little room for mistake.  The failure of completion—whether it be of your own vision of a book or body of work or simply of the weight of your argument itself—that makes readerliness such a paranoid, safeguarded venture saturates what we now know as academic prose.  The thing that makes a thesis good or worthwhile in the world of academia is its ability to convey confidence, finality and achievement; likewise, the one thing that makes a piece of professional scholarship itself is no real person–or even, really, academic person—would dare read it!

Literature, in our minds, expresses, and its use language creates metaphors. The job of the professional scholar is to uncover, situate and show an astute understanding of how these things are imbedded in whatever body of work they are approaching and defending to death.  The essay is, then, a kind of challenge, an investigation of the individual academic’s fortitude; the professional reading of the essay, in turn, works to declare whether or not a scholar has succeeded or failed at showing and expressing their total comprehension of a text and of literature in general.  Just like the undergraduate students I painted earlier in this piece who stand outside of their classrooms explaining texts to each other and getting the gist of what’s happening in their literature classes so that they can be examined once they walk in and take their seats, literary scholars of all stripes attend conferences and pore over peer-reviewed journals in search of holes in each others’ arguments, looking for a way into the great academic party.  Our writing, then, is really just an expression of readerliness, as it gets soaked with the weight of referendum that Barthes has described for us.  In the name of professionalization and academic success, we mask our failures—of understanding, of investigation, of comprehension—with conventions and false confidence.

Good academic prose isn’t supposed to express, that’s what, at least as we say to ourselves, literature does.  Instead, our writing distills our knowledge, it represents our abilities to read.  Even now, I am working against my better judgment that says that even though I have been assigned to respond to a text that really I should be showing an omnipotent understanding of it—that there should be less of me talking and thinking through my own reaction to my reading of S/Z and more of me making definitive statements about it and clear associations with the bodies of scholarship that I have found myself invested in.  What I ought to be doing, or rather, what’s come to be known as a proper academic response to something, is making claims about Barthes’ book, searching for an argument in order to situate my essay amongst all the other essays that have already been written about S/Z.  But, to situate myself is to do away with myself; to make a claim that can be rock steady and can live on its own.  Never mind the text itself or even the event of my reading it, the real goal of the scholarly—or, if you’d rather, the readerly—is to record my own success over a literary work.  After this, my response can live on its own, and if something as unfortunate as publishing happens to my piece of scholarship, my arguments can crystallize and lay waiting until some other wayward academic soul comes and shreds them to bits.

The problem with scholarly writing is, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear, that its fascinated with its own success—indeed, to argue at all is to be invested in the business of being right and proving value.  But, what if writing didn’t argue?  After all, to concede yourself to an argument leaves open the possibility that you might—and considering the fastidious energy of literary critics, probably will—be wrong.  The answer to this conundrum, and the way out of this wicked fantasy of success that academic inquiry holds so close to its heart is a kind of wonderful failure, a resignation and romantic dedication to what Barthes calls “the writerly.”  Instead of working to overcome disorder in a literary object, the writerly text is only focused on the experience, or the event of the language being heard and read.  Unlike the scholarly paper, which attempts to codify and broadcast the academic’s success over a work of literature and makes arguments that are past even before they’ve been published in journals, the writerly text is, in Barthes’ terms:

“A perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitable make it past) can be    superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing before the infinite play of the world (the world as function is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”[5]

So, if the readerly text ought to be read authoritatively and the scholarly argument is meant to convey success and completion with a kind of religious fervor, then I would like to humbly suggest that the writerly response necessarily be a record of failure—to investigate, to piece together, to associate, to understand, to communicate.  Instead of reading to understand and writing to explain, we could write to write, respond to respond and express what is already expressing.  While people read books like treasure maps and write essays like Bibles, the writerly text can write the things that need to be heard.  Writerly readers can listen to language the way we allow ourselves to listen to songs—to be taken over by them, to be perhaps discombobulated by them, or even to be confused or ambivalent about the content that they may or may not carry with them as they are uttered and echoed off into the distance.  You can argue and defend your self into oblivion or maintain your rights of failure and expression.  Instead of training myself to succeed at this academic profession I have placed my gilded toes upon, I will dedicate myself to protecting and expressing the kinds of personal failures—to explain, to be critical, to be scientific and precise—that got me here in the first place.


[1] Barthes, Roland.  S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970. 97-98

[2] S/Z, 105

[3] S/Z, 4

[4] S/Z, 4

[5] S/Z, 5



Elegy for the Living

Subiaco Cemetery Blues

Pineola

Taylor Black

02/03/10

Last week, I dealt with Emmylou Harris’ eulogy to a red dirt girl named Lillian and ended with the line: “We don’t sing to die, we sing because we’re not dead.”  While I can’t exactly say what I meant by this line, or why—aside from the strain of melodrama that weighs heavily on my personal style—I decided to end my piece with it, I can say it was intended in part as a sort of hopeful way out of this particular eulogy to failure.  Can singing ever really fall on deaf—or more pointedly—dead ears?  What sorts of spells do funeral songs cast over the living?

Magically, “the rare haunting power” of funeral songs surfaced again during my reading of Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Typography, causing me to consider the ways in which singing in the name of the dead, or about death, casts a spell over life as it’s being lived.  Here, in one of his various readings of Theodor Reik’s autobiography, he asks: “What exactly links music to mourning?  What links it to the work or play of mourning—to the Trauerspiel, to tragedy?”   So, to continue my ruminations on death and sadness, I would like to ask why, if we sing to live, do we sing so much about death?  What are the residual effects of our mournful cries, our wailings, our keenings about the deceased for those that remain?

Lucinda Williams’ song “Pineola” was written in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of southern gothic poet Frank Stanford.    One afternoon in June 1978, Stanford got into an argument with his wife regarding some of the affairs he had been engaging in with some of the women—Lucinda herself one of them—in and around Fayetteville, Arkansas.  He then proceeded to go up into his bedroom and shoot himself three times in the chest.  The first lines of the song themselves do more than set the stage for this messy, confusing death—they emote and embody Lucinda’s feelings of shock and discombobulation upon learning of Stanford’s act.  In “Pineola,” silence itself is a sound, a spooky reverberation:

“When Daddy told me what happened//I couldn’t believe what he just said//Sonny shot himself with a 44//And they found him lyin’ on his bed.”  The whole song is one long response, a kind of primitive mourning.  It sounds something like the way you feel when you get punched in the throat or the stomach, like the moment just before you can cry when you feel like the wind’s been knocked out of you: “I could not speak a single word//No tears streamed down my face//I just sat there on the living room couch//Starin’ off into space.”

So many things about this song, and the way Stanford took his life confound me.  For one, while performed in its earliest incantations in a sweeter voice, more recent incantations of “Pineola” are more brash and anthemic:  it scares the hell of me.  In terms of the content of the story, I’m also staggered: How—not to mention why—in the world could someone fire three gunshots into their own heart? What is it about this song that’s so commanding when the only story it tells is of a singer’s lack-of-response to news of death?  The answer, it seems, is that it carries power in the noises it creates, and in the echoes of grief it produces.  There’s not much to “Pineola.”  It’s a simple song, really, but the ways in which it performs Lucinda’s loss of breath and response are heavy and clamorous.

The melody itself is a disembodied record as of Stanford’s death, but also of Lucinda’s feelings surrounding it.  As it is performed again and again, all of these things get brought back to life, as Lucinda conjures up the sound of her grief, in her characteristic affectless nasality.  Rhythmically, the song lurches back and forth in an a manic, speedy sort of way.  Listening to the song, I am haunted by both the image and the feeling of Lucinda sitting, dumfounded, on her family’s living room couch as she heard the news of her lover’s suicide.  The emotional direction of “Pineola” results in a eulogy, sure, but it’s also an aural record, a trace, of Lucinda’s spooky wailings – all that we can ever know of “Sonny.”
From red dirt to red dirt in Emmylou’s piece, “Pin-e-ola” drawls out the place of mourning and drops each rhythmic syllables like ashes all over her lover’s grave.  As the story closes inside Subiaco Cemetery, to the funeral proceedings for this man who made himself unfit for heaven, you can feel Lucinda’s emptied-out, hopeless presence standing like a ghost in the midst of Stanford’s grieving family members.   His mother who, as Lucinda tells us, “got the preacher to say a few words//So his soul wouldn’t be lost,” mourns only in order to absolve herself of any guilt regarding her child’s most unholy death.

Meanwhile, just as everyone around her mourns in unison, Lucinda begins to evaporate and then disappear.  The image I have of her at this moment is ghostly, vacant, abject and frightening—not so much because I can imagine it, but because I can feel and hear it too.  You see, this eulogy isn’t sung in the name of the dead, it’s sung by the spirit of the living.  It is Lucinda—not Stanford—that haunts me.  Every time I hear “Pineola,” my sense of Lucinda’s total numbness becomes more intense. Through my idea of her disembodiment I imagine what it must feel like to be a ghost among the living—sort of what it feels like to have someone touch a part of the body that’s fallen asleep.  You feel dead.  It’s all so wonderfully nauseating to consider.
In the end, Lucinda sings to sing.  She mourns to mourn.  The last lines of the song, on the other hand, echo Lucinda’s sadness lyrically—as well as thematically, as a casting off all the noises of her own silent sorrow, of her haunting us with them.

“I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave//I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave”



Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt and Aural Terroir

Elena Glasberg

Two girls singing along to the radio, that American jukebox from before the music industry broke down to alt. country, Emmylou Harris’ niche market.  In the time after “race records” but way before itunes, the radio connected a nation in sound and could inspire two girls to sing along – and to imagine a life beyond their “red dirt town.”  But just you try singing along with “Red Dirt Girl,” and you’ll find that the electronica beat joined by the guitar and then Harris’ sweet voice is deceptively simple.  The lyrics — about a doomed girl named Lillian, who “never got any further across the line than Meridian” — come crowding, relentless and yet achingly slow as grief.

It makes sense that the narrative line of “Red Dirt Girl” is driven, as precisely plotted as a road map.  Harris says the lyrics came to her while she was driving – a road sign for Meridian started her thinking of rhymes.  Lillian/ Meridian, the sounds mixing deep in the red dirt of the border between Alabama and Mississippi.  Fixed as this aural geography may be, it also echoes out across the “great big world” Lillian once dreamed of.  Meridian, Mississippi, like Lillian, also once aspired to a greater world.  During the town’s glory days before WWII, the Mobile and Ohio rail lines intersected there.  Jimmie Rogers, “the singing brakeman” left Amtrak for country music greatness.  But since those days, Meridian’s fortunes, like Lillian’s, “keep on falling/ there ain’t no bottom, there aint no end.”

Meridian, as the name itself suggests, is an in-between state; it’s a place to pass over and like Lillian’s story, it is easily passed over.  It’s the place in-between the wars, in between dirt and sky, earthly blues and gospel’s “joyful sound.”  Even today Meridian has among its foreclosed farmland and dying downtown, a church for every 200 inhabitants.  Jimmie Rodgers’s lonesome yodeling and the whistle of a locomotive still ring through the air.  The red dirt still stains the land; it is a form of terroir — a fancy French term for the trace of origins.  We can taste the red dirt in the “off,” or dissonant, rhymes that Harris thought up that day on the road: Lillian/ meridian.  Alabama/ hammer.  And, Girl/ world – the song’s central dissonance: how to tell a story about a life that isn’t supposed to matter.

“There won’t be a mention in the news of the world/ about the life and death of a red dirt girl.”  But every packed line connects Lillian’s life to the greater world.  Her brother’s “fixin’ up a ’49 Indian” hints at the violent appropriation and pathetic failure of southern whites with little money or prospects wanting to “ride to the moon and back again” on an old fantasy of Native freedom – but all he gets is a trip to Viet Nam.  When the “telegram come” it’s only to tell of the death that predicts Lillian’s own, on the very red dirt from whence she sprang.

Given her losses and sense of entrapment, is it any wonder that Lillian wants to “swing that hammer down”?  Foreign wars and domestic misery – the way that meth labs sprout now in places like Meridian like weeds on abandoned train trestles – resolve when Lillian “laid her hammer down/ without a sound.”  Like John Henry, she too gave up her struggle for significance: “Stars still fell on Alabama/ the night she finally laid that hammer down.”  That hammer, beating you down and beating you up, like the steady beat under the song, still sounds through Johnny Mercer’s “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a hit in 1934, when Meridian still passed as a vital crossroads.  All these times and roads, gentleness and violence intersect in the red dirt, the aural terroir of a lost life that tears at gospel sureties and connects to a relentless, “great big world.”

Red Dirt to Red Dirt: Emmylou’s Ode to Joy and Despair

Taylor Black

Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl” from her 2000 album of the same name is a perfect song.  Like any good work of folk music, the song tells the story of people who don’t matter living in towns that no one knows about.  However, this piece is also country and southern gothic down to its core, as Emmylou ruminates on failure and sings the song of sadness.  There’s a beat that begins even before the song itself commences.  It’s a hammer: the same one we sung about in “If I Had a Hammer,” the same one that made and broke poor old John Henry.  In Emmylou’s song she gives a eulogy for a woman she imagines living down in Meridian, stuck in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go.  She’s a well-meaning woman with well-meant hopes and dreams of getting out of her hometown, who ends up swinging her hammer right back down in the same red dirt ground she came from.  That same simple, yet insistent, beat that began the song turns into a story, a death, a part of history for this red dirt girl.

Emmylou’s version of Lillian’s life makes elegant what is so terrible about the myth of success for those of us born to fail.  You see, there are two kinds of red dirt girls: there’s the one who gets out of Meridian—Emmylou, in this case—and the one who, like Lillian, in spite of themselves and their efforts, has nowhere else to go.  However bleak her future was sure to be, Lillian was able to romance the possibility of success for a certain amount of time in her life, wishing and hoping for a way out of Meridian: “She said there’s not much hope for a red dirt girl//somewhere out there is a great big world//that’s where I’m bound//And the stars might fall on Alabama//But one of these days I’m gonna swing my hammer down//Away from this red dirt town//I’m gonna make a joyful sound.”

Those “joyful sounds” of Lillian’s life are textured over the beat of the hammer, as it hammers away at and through the song and the story.  As opposed to the simple, confident beat, the words Emmylou uses as she sings about Lillian are complex, overwrought and almost too much to cram into the melody they create.  However, Emmylou manages to fit it all in beautifully, poetically and almost magically.  Likewise, Lillian’s attempts at overcoming her position in life—“her joyful sounds”—seems to cast a spell over her condition.  While the beat of the hammer begins, drives and ends the song itself, the sound of Lillian’s life, of her failure, of her desires, is represented by the sound of her quiet failure—of her hammer hitting the ground without a sound, but with some kind of resounding beauty.

All of the noisy fantasies that inspired Lillian’s mundane life before her future became known to her, before it became the past, ended up only representing something like an ontological blues, which, as Emmylou tells us, “keep on falling because there ain’t no bottom//there ain’t no end//at least not for Lillian.”  For Emmylou’s audience, or at least for me, there’s beautiful irony in Lillian’s attempts at optimism and hopefulness.   Even before the song admits it to us, Lillian’s fate seems sealed; as Emmylou puts it, she’s bound to die just as isolated and alien as she was born.  There’ll be no news about Lillian in The News of the World, and that’s what makes the song tragic like any country song ought to be, but also important as a work of folk music for eulogizing a life that doesn’t matter.

The tragedy for Lillian, however, is not so much that she doesn’t matter—the song is a living testament to her.  The problem is all the joyful noise that she hoped would one day grant her wishes of success outside of her predetermined position right there in the middle of Alabama.  What Emmylou does so well in this song is to take these sounds and transform them into something else, something more important and transcendent than quotidian desires.  Emmylou’s voice, Lillian’s memory and “Red Dirt Girl” itself each cast their own spells.  Emmylou sings about tragedy only in order to inspire.  You don’t sing to die, you sing because you’re not dead.