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.