6 thoughts on ““…musings on violence, noise, and history…” (Oxford American 09/10/14)

  1. This section of Will Stephenson’s review really strikes a chord (so to speak) with me: “Marcus has his prejudices in this respect; he views songs as documents of physical effort rather than as abstract, sonic experiences. He’s never shown any real interest in the recording studio as an instrument, in aura, artifice, or pure sound, which might explain his lack of serious engagement over the years with genres like hip-hop and dance—production for its own sake is of no use to his critical approach, which is built on public action.” This might begin to answer a big question I’ve had about Greil Marcus’s criticism over the years: Has he EVER dealt with the pure-sound music of the giants of postwar American jazz, e.g., John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and so many others? Those of you who’ve read more extensively in Marcus than I have may be able to answer my query.

  2. In his rockcritics exchange from 2002, Greil said this:

    “Jazz is a foreign language to me, and while I can read French and pick my way through a German-language newspaper–at least in Germany–I’ve never been any good at speaking either. I can make my way through some jazz–Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool sessions, say–but I don’t think I’m hearing what’s there.”


  3. I appreciate the responses, guys. Marcus’s description of jazz as a “foreign language” fits right into the impression I’ve gotten of his essential musical tastes over the years. I’ve always regarded him as an unreconstructed folkie at heart; when Stephenson says that Marcus “views songs as documents of physical effort,” that sounds to me like an overwrought none-dare-call-it-folk apology that Greil would prefer songs invoking vintage American-studies mythology to those of contemporary musical sensuality, any day of the week. Why listen to John Coltrane’s genius-now sax when somebody has revisited the John Henry myth one more time?!? And Jesse Jarnow’s comment (in the Flavorwire review) that Marcus writes “fan fiction” about the musicians he admires has also connected a lot of dots for me. Thanks for these links.

  4. The link above to Marcus’s piece on “Guitar Drag” in the Oxford American does not work. I’ve copied and pasted a good link to it below.


    It’s a great piece which makes a connection between the song “John Henry” and a Texas hate crime murder via Colson Whitehead’s book John Henry Days. In doing so, Marcus recognizes a dimension to the song that so many other writers have missed (or just plain ignored): “John Henry” is a song of black resistance. I’ve been researching and writing about the legend for several years and am convinced that “John Henry” is more a song about black manhood than a story of man against machine. And when you consider that the song was sung by thousands of men who were denied their manhood–and personhood– for a period of almost 100 years, you can see that the song is not just a song about man versus machine, but also–and, in my opinion, more importantly–about black versus white, the struggle for black freedom. That’s why we have verses like the one below which was sung by a black woman named Minerva Williams.

    John Henry said to the the walking boss
    I’m nothin’ but a man
    And before I take any abuse from you,
    I’ll die with this hammer in my hand,
    I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.

    Much of the same could also be said about “Stagolee.”

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