Wished there was some way a boy could turn into a cat

Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, mind drifting and feeling nervous, on his way to school before he—a stammerer—is required to give a public recitation (from David Mitchell's novel, Black Swan Green, set in England in the early 1980s):

Outside was blowy and wet, like a rain machine was aimed over Black Swan Green. Kingfisher Meadows was all rain-stained walls, dripping bird tables, wet gnomes, swilling ponds and shiny rockeries. A moon-grey cat watched me from Mr Castle’s dry porch. Wished there was some way a boy could turn into a cat. I passed the bridleway stile. If I was Grant Burch or Ross Wilcox or any of the council house kids from down Wellington End, I’d just skive off and hop over that stile and follow the bridleway to wherever it went. Even see if it leads to the lost tunnel under the Malvern Hills. But kids like me just can’t. Mr Kempsey’d notice straight off that I was absent on my dreaded form-assembly day. Mum’d be phoned by morning break. Mr Nixon’d get involved. Dad’d be called out of his Wednesday meeting. Truant officers and their sniffer dogs’d be put on my trail. I’d get captured, interrogated, skinned alive, and Mr Kempsey’d still make me read a passage from Plain Prayers for a Complicated World.

Once you think about the consequences, you’ve had it.

By the Black Swan girls were clustered under umbrellas. Boys can’t use umbrellas ’cause they’re gay. (’Cept for Grant Burch, that is, who stays dry by getting his servant Philip Phelps to bring a big golfing umbrella.)

This is my favorite Mitchell novel. You don't see the scaffolding in this one like you do, intentionally so, in many of his others, though if you look carefully enough you will see some planking and an odd metal pole or two that will lead you back to Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten. But it's not the absence of visible structure that makes the book so compelling. For me, it's Jason Taylor's voice (How often have I wished to disappear the way Jason Taylor wishes he could become that moon-grey cat?) and how Mitchell can capture a thirteen-year-old boy's voice so perfectly with words crafted in a way no thirteen-year-old possibly could. And, yes, writers do this kind of magic act all the time with first-person narration. At least the good ones do. The writing is stylized but the style summons the character rather than swamping him. The style conjures up the character's voice so clearly that you forget that it is style that is making this all happen. The strings vanish. 

A List

A few things I've been listening to lately:

Fleetwood Mac's shattering "Silver Springs," specifically this performance from 1997. Just look at what is happening between Lindsey Buckingham and that sonic enchantress, Stevie Nicks, beginning at about the 3:50 mark. Is that real heat between former lovers? Is it a performance? Does it even matter?

Jason Isbell's new tune, "Hope the High Road." This is the song of a defiant optimistic who has lived through a terrible year. That's how I hear it. But the bridge will mess with you and make you question yourself. The band pulls back for a second, and Isbell leaps into the gap, singing,  "We'll ride the ship down, dumping buckets overboard / There can't be more of them than us, there can't be more." Are those the thoughts of a stubborn man who refuses to let a momentary setback change his course or are those the last words of someone whose position has been suddenly and unexpectedly overrun?

"Jubilee Street" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This song has actually been rattling around my brain for a long while, ever since a friend played it for me a couple of years ago in New York. I listen to it just about every week. It's endless in the way that "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" are. I'm about the furthest thing from a Nick Cave fan. He's always seemed like a carny to me, someone whose music was all bombast or delivered with an affected lyrical solemnity (e.g., "I don't believe in an interventionist God") that made me gag. But the theatricality that curdles so much of his other work is tempered here. Don't let the lyrics fool you. They're brilliant, but the heart of the song is a twisting ray of feedback that holds everything together like a cotter key.




Once Upon a Time Called Now

I'm now available in podcast form. 

Yesterday I had the privilege to be interviewed about Strangers Below for the New Books Network. You can listen right here in your browser, or you can grab the podcast from iTunes right here. 

It's about an hour of conversation with Phillip Sherman, a historian at Maryville College in Tennessee, who was a delight to speak with. Phillip asked why I wrote the book, who the Primitive Baptists really were and are, and how on earth a Jewish boy from Los Angeles wound up writing about Christians in the old and new Souths. As the Lollipop Man once said, kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums. So to speak.


Time is Pilin' Up

Strangers Below was blessed with another generous reviewer. In the December 2016 issue of the Journal of American History, Larry Eskridge writes

Perhaps the single best part of the book is Guthman’s examination of the role that Primitive Baptists played within recent musical culture via the “high lonesome sound” of the folk musicians Roscoe Holcomb and Ralph Stanley. In short, he argues that their popularity marked an “eruption . . . of a Calvinist feeling” in the nation’s popular culture that articulated a mood that still exists within the nation’s psyche. The thesis seems a stretch but makes a brilliant essay on American religion and popular culture.

Well, if you ain't stretching', you ain't livin'.

Or, if you want someone who can put it all far more eloquently than that, turn to the chronicler of the blues, Robert Palmer, who wrote, "How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thoughts of generations, the history of every human being who's ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain." I stand with Palmer even though I ought to know better. Palmer's remark is the kind of thing that has spawned a thousand self-satisfied seminar papers, a few hundred clotted dissertations, and a very small handful of brilliant books about the romanticization of the blues. It's the kind of remark that historians rightly want to historicize (e.g., Well, where did that idea come from? This sentimental and fanciful notion that in the blues we hear the raw thoughts and feelings of generations upon generations? And why is it that we seem always to find white writers and listeners making this kind of assumption about black music? What's up with that?). So I stand with the historians, too, because those are the kinds of questions you need to ask if you want to prevent premature blindness.

But, damn, what do you do when you put a record on and it knocks you dead? What do you do when you walk into a church or a mosque or a temple, walk into a tradition far from your own, and hear something utterly strange that somehow feels like a memory? What do you do with that? What do you do with that after you've analyzed it, parsed it, and historicized the hell out of it and you're still left with that indescribable something? Maybe you just honor it.

So thank you to Larry Eskridge and to all the other readers who've made the interpretive leap with me. 



It's Bright in the Heavens and the Wheels are Flying

Some belated housekeeping and good news:

I was already a little late to this in August when I took to Facebook to note that the great historian Paul Harvey had recently reviewed Strangers Below, calling it "a wholly original contribution to American religious history, and to the new field of the history of emotion."  So I'm super-late (I think that's the technical term) in posting a link to Harvey's review here, but maybe I'm just guilty of savoring the good news.

More recently, John Daly, whose work on religion and the Civil War was eye-opening to me, described Strangers as a "pithy and lively" book whose findings "deserve a place of honor" among recent historical work on southern evangelicals. Here's the link to Daly's review.

Here Am I

Have you heard Leonard Cohen's new song? The one released yesterday. The one called "You Want It Darker." The one the reports tell us was released on Cohen's eighty-second birthday. The one, these same reports say, that will come packaged with Cohen's new album on October 21. The one—and this is the date that truly matters—that beckons the arrival of the Jewish new year and, with it, Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, the most sacred day in the Jewish year.

Cohen's Jewishness has always shaded his music. Here, though, the whole song is stitched with its color. "You Want It Darker" is a low and supplicating prayer, and it's a burial hymn. There is too much to say about it, but for now, just this: when Cohen, in the chorus, chants, "Hineni, hineni, I'm ready, my Lord," he's not chanting nonsense. Hineni means "Here I am or Here am I" in Hebrew. These are the words Abraham speaks first to God and then to his son, Isaac, before he binds Isaac to the altar. They are desperate and naked and terrible words. They are the same words sung each year during Yom Kippur by the chazzan, the cantor, on behalf of the congregation:

Here am I that am poor in deed, rattled and afraid, in awe of Him who sits in wait for the praises of Israel, standing to plead before Him for His people Israel who have sent me, though I am not fit or worthy for the task. 

In my family's shul when I was growing up, the chazzan would start in the back of the room and slowly make his way down the center aisle as he chanted. Those high holiday services were often so long, so boring, so remote. I would stand aching and restless in my penny loafers. I wanted to go home to the TV and to bare feet. But not then. When the chazzan chanted the Hineni, everything stopped. We were transfixed. In retrospect those moments feel like blessed parts of my now-dispersed Jewish inheritance.

And so here comes Leonard Cohen in his impossible baritone on a hot September day to stun me and move me, to virtually call up all of Jewish history from Abraham to the fidgety boy standing next to his mom and dad in the middle of the shul on some other hot September day not very long ago.

Update, November 7, 2016: Leonard Cohen is dead at age 82.



The Forgotten History of Black Calvinism and the Haunting of American Folk Music

There's a new interview with yours truly over at Religion Dispatches. A taste:

The third and final story [of Strangers Below] is a ghost story. It’s about the strange diffusion of the Primitives’ sensibility in modern American roots music. For me, it all started while I was listening to the radio in my Volkswagen. This was in early 2002. I heard the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley chanting out “O Death,” a chilling a cappella deathbed plea that had become famous as part of the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Hearing that song on country music radio will make the mind turn.