Tuesday, October 09, 2007

With a book in my hand

Newspaper
Image: Kim Rugg

John Allyn Smith Sails - Okkervil River

Sloop John B - The Beach Boys

Histe Up the John B Sail - Anonymous

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that at least half of the reviews I've read of "John Allyn Smith Sails"--and Okkervil River's album The Stage Names (Amazon, eMusic)--have identified its coda as "the Beach Boys' song." It's a totally understandable error. Brian Wilson's arrangement of the traditional West Indies sea shanty on one of the most critically regarded and beloved albums in the rock canon owns that puppy. "Sloop John B" wears Wilson's signature so elegantly and authoritatively, the song effects a sort of cultural amnesia that erases all of the "Hoist Up the John B's Sails," "Wreck of the John B's" and other recorded variants that came before, and all the "Sloop John B's" (there are few variants post-Beach Boys--it casts a shadow that large) that came after. (By point of contrast is the anonymous--and hard going--folk version "Histe Up the John B Sail". It's a field recording from, I'd estimate, the 1920s.)

So if it's an excusable misattribution, it's also a really fascinating one given this song's (and album's) preoccupation with names and naming, ownership and authenticity. Some thoughts up front. It seems to me a capitalist impulse for individuals to claim an anonymous and collective work, to seize ownership and profit from it. This kind of activity ran rampant during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s, with performers and audiences reassigning standards like "Tom Dooley" to The Kingston Trio and "Scarborough Fair" to Simon & Garfunkel. I don't want to excessively valorize the folk tradition or demonize it's participation in pop culture. As Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor adeptly argue in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (Amazon), the idea that what we regularly term "folk music" has a greater claim on authenticity, or reflects a pure, noncommercial oral tradition, is sentimental rubbish (and has been deployed in support of noxious ideologies--particularly racial segregation).

John Allyn Smith is John Berryman, who
took his stepfather's name after his birth father (also John Smith) killed himself. Most interpretations of Berryman's life attribute the chaos of his career and personal relationships to this original trauma. And to perform a really elementary psycholinguistic trick, Berryman in his renaming, suffers a second trauma: alienation from the name of the father. I've actually never had much confidence in Freud or Lacan, but I do think there's something profound and troubling about a poet with a "false" name, symbolically severed from his origin. I mean, that's a massive dangling signifier for someone so invested in the precision of language! And that Berryman spent his last years on his father's old stomping grounds of Minnesota working through his anger and loss via Dream Songs, seems consistent with this kind of reading. (For what it's worth, Roland Barthes referred to the proper name as the "prince of signifiers," and Jacques Derrida called it an empty signifier, an impossibility.)

So I think that's what Will Sheff's getting at with the title and big extratextual reference of this song (aside from the fact that by calling it "John Allyn Smith," he obscures his clever-clever of referencing a boat called "John B"). In using Berryman's "proper" name, Sheff also refers to the album's larger theme of stage names and anxiety over where the performer and performance end and the person starts--nicely hinted in the line At the funeral the University/ Cried at the three poems they presented instead of broken me. A couple months ago, when I first heard this tender/brash/funny take on Berryman--this song that starts direct, in medias res,
its lyrics of liquored melancholy bluster and sarcastic self-pity, its languid bass guitar and tight, insistent beats, its neat, feedbacked slide into rousing sail into the sunset--I had to go back and reread Eileen Simpson's great memoir Poets in Their Youth (Amazon) for her version of the man.

Simpson was married to Berryman early in his career, and for an ex-wife, offers a remarkably fair-minded and fascinating portrayal of Berryman and his circle of crazy-drunk-famous poets. Naturally it's a much more intimate portrait of the man--smaller, less heroic for its details of domesticity. But even Simpson implies that this is someone she never really knew (she reads of his 1972 death by suicide in the New York Times like everyone else). And she closes her account with an afterlife fantasy that may have inspired Sheff (who I assume
has read Simpson's book--it's pretty much essential if you're even remotely interested in 20C American poetry). Here's Berryman hanging out with his dead poet pals:

They would recite one another's poems and talk for hours on end, free at last of worldly concerns about where the next advance, the next drink, the next girl or even the next inspiration would come from...

And its traces: And I hear the others all whisper "come home" ... I'm full in my heart and my head and I wanna go home/With a book in my hand.

I guess maybe I'm a little stuck on this subject, but both biographers seem to be trying to rescue Berryman from the tragic suicidal artist plot. Simpson uses love (or at least the fondness that comes with time and distance) and applies the details that build a complex portrait of a person. Sheff uses wry humor and interestingly, attributes agency to the dead man. As he says in an interview, it's Berryman's voice, "his song, he gets to do what he wants, say what he wants." It's like Berryman's name is on the song because he owns it.

Oh and:
I can already anticipate the hate that some will lob its way, but I kinda love Lavender Diamond's cover or "Like a Prayer" over at Paper Thin Walls.

7 Comments:

Anonymous david said...

Great post, Amy!

You know, I've read that some Pet Sounds purists don't consider "Sloop John B" as part of the proper album, that it was only included at the insistence of Capitol Records, over the objections of Brian Wilson.

But in the context of Wilson's subsequent mental breakdown, which was no doubt helped along (if not directly caused) by his drug use, I've always found the "...this is the worst trip I ever been on" line as sad and as devastatingly heartbreaking as any of the Tony Asher-penned lyrics on the rest of the album.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

This was a fantastic, fantastic post, and I thank you greatly for it.

The only thing I'd mention by way of correction is that you got a line wrong:

And I hear the others all whisper "come home" ... I've folded my heart in my head and I wanna go home/With a book in my hand.

It's actually "I'm full in my heart and my head and I wanna go home". Which only adds to the song's clever glory, as those lines are taken nearly verbatim from one of Berryman's Dream Songs (#77, which reads near the end: "his head full
& his heart full, he's making ready to move on")

And if you read through that poem, you'll notice that Mr. Sheff also took a few other lyrics directly from it ("Wif a book of his in either hand he is stript down to move on."). So, geek that I am, this led me to read through all the Dream Poems again, and in doing so, I noticed several other phrases in "John Allyn Smith Sails" had been ripped directly from the collection ("brightest winter sun" makes an appearance early on). And now, in live versions on their recent tour, Sheff has taken to singing "On a bridge on Washington Avenue in the year of 1972, broke Mr. Bones and skull and it was memorable" - Mr. Bones being, of course, the supposed alter-ego of Berryman's throughout the Dream Songs (and, by extension, Mr Berryman would be breaking Mr Bones by committing suicide that fateful day). Seriously, Sheff just can't seem to stop adding references to this thing. :)

He said there's a lot on "The Stage Names" if you wanna go digging...this is the only song I've really dug around on (besides the more obviously referential "Plus Ones"), but man there's a whole lot to find.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Thanks Dave. And Chad, I hadn't realized Sheff pulled so many lyrics from the Dream Songs. I have Berryman's Collected Poems in a box somewhere but gave up looking for it after a few tries. Thanks for the additional info. There are a lot of ways to read the song--always a sign of something good IMO.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Also, lyrics fixed!

7:33 PM  
Blogger Dane meets Simone said...

Simpson's book--it's pretty much essential if you're even remotely interested in 20C American poetry).

Well...no.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Care to expand on your opinion? Which is, after all, what an assertion about the relative merits of a book is. Of course, it's much easier to snark & run...

8:59 PM  
Blogger carson said...

I'd like to find the actual lyrics of the original folk song or at least the earliest known recording of the song. Only then can you compare what was originally said to what was changed and then on to make assumptions on what Brian Wilson may have meant. To me it seems that the song was originally written by a sailing crew, thus references to "histe up the john b sail" and may have been the crews way of convincing the captain to take them home. A lot of folk music was written while working and I would take that into consideration. If someone can track down a version of the original lyrics then we can have a real discussion of the beach boys version.

11:38 AM  

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