I’ve been trying to figure it out by listening to the way modern primitives—another way of saying “folkie,” maybe, maybe not—have taken up certain touchstones of old American music. It’s odd how, again and again over the last few years, people have been drawn to two pieces in particular: the Mississippi blues singer Son House’s 1930 “My Black Mama”—as, after House’s rediscovery by 1960s blues cultists, the song was rewritten as “Death Letter Blues”—and, summing up the morbid mountain music the Virginia banjo player Dock Boggs made in the late 1920s, his queer “Sugar Baby.” Whatever it is that’s going on here, with the White Stripes, the Kills, John Mellencamp, the Eagles of Death Metal, David Johansen, and more diving after this music, it isn’t the blackface—or whiteface—of the 1960s. Usually the original lyrics are intact and the songs are unrecognizable as covers of anything, yet there’s a certain legitimacy, or the thrill of the illegitimacy of cultural appropriation, that gives these new recordings their shared spark. It’s the sense of venturing into forbidden or foreign territory, in disguise—and then the thrill of ripping off the disguise, not to show others who you really are, but to find out.I’m interested in the way old music seems to be heard, today, as punk. It’s heard as music of values: the values of harshness, cruelty, even sadism if that’s what it takes to get rid of euphemism in ordinary speech, at funerals, in religion or politics. The values of say your piece and get off the stage: get it over with, tell the truth as you see it and then shut up. There’s a sense of affinity, not the smell of a raid on someone else’s culture. What’s going on could hardly be more different from the slavish folk-revival attempts at self-erasure of Jo-Ann Kelly (“You might remember her from those British Blues Anthologies, where she sounded exactly like Memphis Minnie,” wrote Charles Burton in Rolling Stone in 1969, before he turned into rockabilly singer Charlie Burton, “but like it says in the liner notes, she’s been woodshedding for a long time, and now she sounds exactly like Robert Johnson”) , Geoff Muldaur, the New Lost City Ramblers, or even Bob Dylan in the early sixties—as opposed to the Bob Dylan of Love and Theft, of his “High Water (For Charley Patton),” spinning lines from old folk songs as if he were throwing dice.It’s a lack of sanctimony, caught perfectly in Ghost World, a modern punk movie made by Terry Zwigoff, a one-time sixties country blues cultist who, in his liner notes to the soundtrack album, makes it clear he has abandoned none of his original values of soil and blood and reality and who still has a collection of more than fifteen hundred 78s. “My own likes and dislikes musically speaking are so out of touch with the rest of the world, that it was problematic choosing tunes to use in Ghost World that would connote the same message to the audience as to myself,” Zwigoff writes. No kidding: he fails completely, and so the movie sings its own tune. Thora Birch’s Enid finds the truth: she picks up an old country blues LP at a garage sale, puts it on the turntable she probably got for her fifth birthday, and hears Skip James’s 1931 “Devil Got My Woman.” Her life doesn’t change, it deepens—and then it returns to where it was, leaving her stranded.She goes back to the guy who sold her the album, Steve Buscemi’s geek collector, and asks for “more records like that.” “There aren’t any more like that,” he says. (“A big fantasy for Terry,” the comix artist R. Crumb, subject of Zwigoff’s film Crumb, says. “The eighteen-year-old thinks the cranky, alienated old record-collector nerd is a cool guy and they end up having sex!”)  He takes her to a club to see an ancient black singer, and she fixes him up with a blonde at the bar. “Wow!” says the blonde, trying hard after Buscemi has baffled her by carefully explaining that the singer isn’t really blues, but perhaps closer to ragtime, depending on how you define… “If you’re into blues, you’ve got to hear Blueshammer!”—which turns out to be the white trio the old man is opening for. They come storming onto the stage, the apotheosis of fake, of cultural theft and blues rape, smashing out their own “Pickin’ Cotton Blues.” Buscemi sinks even further into the depression that hangs over him like a cloud. “For the world at large in the film,” Zwigoff says in his liner notes, “I wanted horribly contrived commercial slop… I wanted this music to heighten the alienation and fit into the general feeling of paranoia and cynicism I was attempting to create”—so Zwigoff wrote “Pickin’ Cotton Blues” himself. “You want the audience to get the fact that the music is supposed to be bad,” he writes, even if “that can make the scene hard to sit through.” But the Blueshammer song doesn’t work. The song isn’t terrible. The performance is obnoxious, and it’s alive. It’s not nearly as awful as it’s supposed to be!The punk reinvention of old American music begins in the mid- to late sixties, with people taking the ancient sound as a foreign language in which you could say absolutely anything, mean every word, and pretend you were only kidding. There were the Holy Modal Rounders in Greenwich Village in 1963, incapable of taking anything seriously, but nevertheless getting to the bottom of folk songs other people sang as if they were obvious—but their soulmates were in Los Angeles, where everything was corrupted the minute it hit the sun: Kaleidoscope making “Greenwood Sidee” and “Cuckoo” into satanic rituals the Manson Family wouldn’t have recognized. Taj Mahal cakewalking through “The Celebrated Walking Blues” in 1967. Captain Beefheart’s scratchy, fierce live versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s 1954 “Evil” and Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” in 1966 and 1968, the singer’s voice filled with resentment for the songs, for what he could never be, and so making them cheap, mean, hateful, and strange. Canned Heat’s 1968 version of Tommy Johnson’s 1928 “Big Road Blues,” their starts-on-earth “On the Road Again”—which ends in the afterlife, if not the underworld.From London, but onstage in San Francisco for music that would appear in 1968 on Wheels of Fire, Cream found its way into Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Crossroads” and then out of it, as the onetime country blues fanatic Eric Clapton was, for a night, unafraid of the music he knew he could never really get his arms around, the best description of the music merely the name of the album that carried it. And then Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club, again in Los Angeles, punk Los Angeles in 1981, with all knowledge lost and all books burned, the old songs discovered as if they were scribbles no one had even tried to decipher. So the Gun Club makes Fire of Love in 1981, with voodoo art on the front cover and shelves of the sort of hoodoo elixirs you can still buy on Beale Street on the back sleeve—including a bottle where the label shows Elvis being whipped by Ann-Margret—and on the album itself Pierce is flattening Son House’s 1930 “Preaching the Blues” and Tommy Johnson’s 1928 “Cool Drink of Water Blues” as if he’s a truck and the songs are just road. Pierce may be mired in sixties authenticity-mongering only in that he doesn’t really find his own voice—but it’s his flailing for it that brings the tunes to life.In 1930 Son House was twenty-eight; his deep, thick voice made it sound as if he’d already lived more than one life. The first three minutes of his nearly six-and-a-half-minute “My Black Mama”—two sides of a 78—were a pastiche of floating verses about trouble with women. When the second side began a letter arrived and a story came into focus: “The gal you love is dead.” He rushes off to see her, finds her “on the coolin’ board.” He looks “down in her face.” Just like that, you’re somewhere else—somewhere between this world and another world.
When in 1965, in a Columbia studio in New York City, House recast those last three minutes as “Death Letter Blues,” he had twenty-three years left to live. He sounded little older than he had thirty-five years before, but the song is completely different in tone and lyrics and structure. The folk-lyric verses from what in 1930 was Part I are smeared into what had been Part 2, which now covers its own six minutes. Compared to “My Black Mama,” this is much more self-consciously masterful, with House pressing hard vocally, from the chest, and it’s no longer a story. Wisdom is being passed on; the sense of inevitability, of fate as a black hole, is gone.In 1976, at the Zoo Club in London, Malcolm McLaren put on the first punk festival, with Sex Pistols, the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Damned, the Buzzcocks. But six years earlier Son House was sitting in a chair on the same stage. “Well, I tell y’all the truth, children, I been drinkin’ this kinda medicine now, ever since—’27, I think it was. I started—” “1827,” someone whispers. House breaks up cackling. “Something slipped my remembrance, there.” This is blackface: a studied parody of the drunken old blues wreck. House goes on, straightening up: “Fact of the business, habits and habits. Sometimes you think you just can’t do without a thing. The way you look at it, you just can’t—that old word, caint. Just can’t. Well—any thing that you get it in your mind, and your mind tell you, that you can’t do it—don’t try.” Laughter from the crowd. “‘Cause you’re bound to fail.” He sounds very drunk again. “When you think you can—you can pretty well, well, when you thinkin’ you can, if you think you can’t, because some people, I used to hear ’em say, tell others that something happened, just say, man, you know, my mother told me not to do that thing, but if I’d just followed my first mind, my mind told me! I oughta done something. Say what? Yay-ehhhh.” He whispers: “If I had just done followed my first mind,” and then he raises his voice: “Well, that’s the bad one. You oughten’da followed it. Don’t ever follow your first mind—’cause that’s the one that’s wrong. ‘Cause the devil beats God every time.” There’s laughter. House laughs: “Think twice—and speak once.” He goes into the song.
There’s hot, hard guitar. The voice is free, rangy, full, in the air. The story unfolds: the woman in the song is dead and you are in her presence. House is a bird, looking down on the man looking down on the dead woman—this is the second mind, playing the song. “See you on Judgment Day” is not a tag line. “I didn’t have a soul, to throw my arms around/I said, I didn’t have a soul—to throw my arms around.” “I wouldn’t mistreat you, for my weight in gold”—and you hear how he has mistreated her. The voice is escaping from his body.When the Detroit one-man one-woman guitar-and-drums punk combo the White Stripes take up the song thirty years later, in 2000, they take it straight, stridently, like everything else on De Stijl; they rise to the occasion as if they’re getting out of bed. “Got up this morning/The break of day/Just hugging the pillows/Where my baby used to lay”—the language is classical, from another country, and it fits seamlessly into the songs around it. This song is merely more shapely, more striking. The fact that it opens into a larger world seems almost an illusion: the ten thousand people at the burying ground aren’t present anywhere else on the album, and you wonder why not.
Two years later it’s one-time New York Dolls singer David Johansen, aka lounge lizard Buster Poindexter, now working as a tramp folklorist on his album Shaker, with his band the Harry Smiths, named for a real tramp folklorist. The guitarist comes up with a wonderful bottleneck; Johansen offers a smeared, embarrassing blackface vocal, but you get the funny sense that his respect for the song is so great that the only way he can sing it is to make a fool of himself. But the guitarist is playing tiny figures, undercutting Johansen’s overstatements, or pushing him into himself, or out of himself. You don’t hear Johansen understanding the words he’s singing, but you hear him catch the rhythm and ride it. “Just huggin’ the pillow where the good gal used to lay”—that’s the line that seems to get them. Now the rhythm is harder, hammering down at the end of phrases, and Johansen steps forward as himself, going from loud to soft, reaching for melodrama. “Hush!—I thought I heard her call my name—you know it wasn’t loud—it was kind of nice and plain.” He is in the song; no one is telling him to leave.And then it’s the Indiana rocker John Mellencamp, a year later, on Trouble No More, a shining album where he dared to take up not only “Death Letter” but Howlin’ Wolf’s 1961 “Down in the Bottom,” Hoagy Carmichael’s 1942 “Baltimore Oriole,” and Dicky Doo and the Don’ts fabulous doo-wop “Teardrops Will Fall,” and closed the album by changing Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers’ 1926 “White House Blues” from a sardonic number about the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 into a meaninglessly clumsy, heartbreakingly bitter tale about an election ninety-nine years later. Mellencamp looks Son House in the face as he sings, and it’s this, his acknowledgment that the song does not belong to him, that allows him to claim it as Jack White of the White Stripes and David Johansen do not quite dare to do. Mellencamp is singing the song in his own voice, in his own style—and yet he brings less that is new to the song, perhaps because there is no distance.
In each case, the song is demanding more from the musicians than they have to give. They could pretend to be something they aren’t; they could dress up, they could attack the song with parody and satire, take revenge on the way the song resists them. The singer is thrown back on himself, and so he leaves the song as an ordinary person, and with a sly, secret grin. The singers sing to each other: the song has become a new kind of pop lingua franca. As a death letter it’s a chain letter.
It’s 1997, and Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of the Chicago old-timey punk band Wilco, along with Roger McGuinn, are taking up Dock Boggs’s “Sugar Baby” at a Harry Smith tribute concert. “Why don’t you start it off, Jeff,” McGuinn says, as if the old folk-rocker knows Tweedy has no idea what a vortex he’s about to be sucked into. Boggs’s 1927 recording is one of the most fierce and unyielding performances in American music, the killer quietly teasing his victim, a child howling in the next room—and from the first instant, in Tweedy’s fingers, the song is a dream, a swirl. The three musicians are at once at the center of the circle and above it, looking down only for an instant, then disappearing into the clouds. “That kid! How did he get that song?” said a woman in her fifties, astonished, as the song seemed less to end than to go back where it came from, wherever that was. How could this kid take the song so completely, she meant, make it altogether his own, as if it had never been played before?From the Eagles of Death Metal you learn that Boggs’s songs don’t hold still, that they demand from you what you and nobody else can give. It’s 2004, with the hilarious, very folkie, very aluminum Peace, Love, Death Metal, and leader Jesse “The Devil” Huge, aka J Devil Huge, is having the time of his life. “Who’ll love the devil? Who’ll kiss his tongue? Who’ll kiss the devil on his tongue?” he roars, and he answers himself: “I’ll love the devil! I’ll kiss his tongue! I will kiss the devil on his tongue!” But it turns out that “Kiss the Devil” is just the lightest rewrite of Boggs’s “Sugar Baby.”
“Sunday morning gonna wake up crazy,” the great blind country guitarist Riley Puckett sang happily in 1940 in his version of “Nobody’s Business,” as if he were about to go out for a cup of coffee. “Kill my wife and slay my baby/Nobody’s business if I do.” This isn’t Boggs’s tone. His song is more demonic than these Eagles, not to mention the other Eagles, would ever dare to be. “Who’ll rock the cradle, who’ll sing the song? Who’ll rock the cradle when you gone?” Boggs’s singer asks his wife. He answers for her: “I’ll rock the cradle, I’ll sing the song/I will rock the cradle when you gone.” Huge steps back from this with parody, with absurdity—“Peace, Love, Death Metal,” right—and his step back is why his rewrite works. He heard Boggs; he understood him. He also understood that the only way he could ever sing Boggs’s song, the only way he could drape Boggs’s skin over his, was to turn the song into a joke.
In 2003, the one-woman one-man punk chamber band the Fiery Furnaces, from Oak Park, Illinois, by way of Brooklyn, took up Boggs’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” on their odd, word-drunk debut, Gallowsbird Bark. I know Boggs’s music, and I played the Fiery Furnaces album for months without realizing they were covering him; one day, I just happened to notice something in the album credits. Otherwise I still wouldn’t know. Matthew Friedberger plays a rolling, gonging, Dylan-style piano—the way Dylan plays on “Dear Landlord” or “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” There is no referent to the past, present, anywhere, not in the music, especially not in Eleanor Friedberger’s singing.The song was written by W. T. Meyer, who owned a variety store in Richland, Virginia. He’d shuffle lines from blues and country songs, practicing folk-lyric song-making, and send them to performers he liked—Mississippi John Hurt was a favorite. The idea was that they’d fit his words to melodies and record the results, for his own record company: Lonesome Ace, with a picture of the Spirit of St. Louis and the motto “Without a Yodel” on the label, because Meyers loved Charles Lindbergh and hated yodeling. Boggs recorded the little blues pastiche in 1929, at his last session before the Depression all but wiped out blues and country recording: the last recordings Boggs would make until the folklorist Mike Seeger located him in 1963, within miles of where Boggs had lived his whole life. As the punk duo the Kills—V. V., from the United States, Hotel, from the United Kingdom—do with their 2003 version of “Sugar Baby,” Boggs sings it as a scratchy drone, suppressing the tune. He is going through the motions. Boggs himself made folk-lyric songs—but he made them, and he could have heard Meyer’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” as a parody of what he’d already done, or who he was. He wasn’t going to say no; it was a chance to make another record.There’s no hint of this in the Fiery Furnaces’ version. Of Meyer’s ten verses, they use five—just enough for Eleanor Friedberger to sing as if she’s worked out every idea in the lyric for herself, fingering her own scars. At the same time there is a second dimension in her singing, a second mind, where every word travels on a stream of consciousness, as if the idea in any given line has just occurred to her. Nevertheless, by the time she reaches the second-to-last verse she’ll use she is testifying, with her hand over her heart, as when Boggs sang the lines he all but turned his back: “No, I’ve never worked for pleasure/Peace on earth I cannot find.” But by her last verse she is drifting again, floating through the song, as if it has already long outlived her. By now what might be a clavinet is keening behind the piano, which seems to play itself, seems like a player piano, the high, disembodied sound like something the song is generating for itself, not something anyone is playing. “I’ll soak up all the old rub al-co-hol,” Eleanor Friedberger sings carefully, distinctly, pressing on each syllable, as if to nail what each one means into her tongue like a stud, as if she’s looking herself in the face. “Ease all trouble off my mind,” she sings. “I’ll ease all trouble off my mind/My mind/My mind”—and Dock Boggs is gone. The song is hers, absolutely. She wrote it. No one else can sing it now.
“Somebody has to black hisself up/For somebody else to stay white”—is that true? Sometimes you can hear that; other times you can’t.