With a book in my hand
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.
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.