TH_BULB.jpg (104992 octets)

James Wojick

Devil's Music

By Greil Marcus (Esquire, December 1998)

"The purer the song, the more diabolical the singer. Take Tom House."

In times of uncertainty, Americans are drawn to the belief that truth and beauty come right out of the ground, like a mountain spring or a bug. "Americans, having the most complex civilization the world has seen," Raymond Chandler once wrote, "still like to think of themselves as plain people. In other words they like to think the comic-strip artist is a better draftsman than Leonardo." But run this strain of plain-folks populism through people who aren't so plain-singers, say - and it comes out as a wish for purity: a wish to be clean, clean as dirt.

The wish for purity turns singers toward themes of sin, crime, and violation, shaped by melodies that communicate not willfulness but fatalism, as if only the guiltiest among us can say how precious innocence really is. All of this is apparent in a new recording, This White Man's Burden, by a little-known songwriter named Tom House. House is a forty-nine-year-old Nashville barroom poet and singer who makes most of his living as a traveling light bulb-maintenance supervisor for the Dillard's department-store chain. His record-a rough, grimy, sometimes cruel recasting of country music as a folk music made for ordinary people by devils-is an extraordinary collection of warnings and threats, and it sounds as if it came right out of the ground. His music has the feel of one-of-a-kind, the work of an eccentric who can neither speak nor hear any other language. In fact House is one actor on what is getting to be a crowded stage.

A belief in ground music - or a search for it - is central to the present-day embrace of protean, primitive forms of country music by any number of young bands and stylists: Wilco, Son Volt, Clodhopper, Gillian Welch, Palace, and the many southern, northern, and British performers gathered around the Chicago labels Bloodshot and Checkered Past. All are excavating ancient songs and twisting their quietly damned words and halting rhythms toward themselves. They share with House an urge to reach into the past, as if only the force of the past can remove the false face of the present. Behind this urge is a belief that as the ground beneath our feet doesn't change, neither does what comes out of the ground. You hear an embrace less of the merely old than of the ineradicable.

Part of what makes this new old music so uncannily thrilling, why it can make you nervous a second after it makes you smile, is that at their best, its authors seem to understand that it does nor come out of the ground. As moral detectives, House and a few others communicate a conviction that the ineradicable voices of cleanliness and filth, of earthly punishment and unearthly freedom, don't speak of their own accord. You have to trick those voices into telling what they know.

That may be why the specters in This White Man's Burden  are specters. The people in House's songs remain indistinct, passers-by in some greater drama-the drama of how hard it is for people to talk and how little they will finally tell you. That's the burden of House's exquisite "Tell Lorraine." You could expire trying to turn the song's implied story into a plot, to make its lines add up. In its floating, beckoning way, the song is about a suspect who won't confess, who won't tell the singer why she acts as she does, won't tell him her idea of the meaning of life; the song is about what it costs the detective, the songwriter; the singer; to give up on the case. So you hear his enormous hesitation-and, far more painfully, you hear the woman in the song slipping away to that place where no one hears, no one speaks, and no one is remembered. The performance seems very crude, the melody flattened by the singerís hums and sighs, but the melody is far too sweet to be allowed to carry the song by itself. Give the song over to the melody and it would be wistful, sad, and sentimental, and cost nobody anything. As House makes the idea of the song into music, only enough of the melody remains to tell you how beautiful life is supposed to be. 

This White Man's Burden is House's third recording; it's the most primitive in its body as it is the most sophisticated in its soul. Throughout, pushed and carried by his own acoustic guitar, by drums, fiddle, banjo, even occasional trashy blues guitar, House's burred voice-often shadowed by that of a stunning second singer, Tomi Lunsford, whom at first you may not notice at all - is by turns defiant and regretful. His songs take on the feel of an after-hours session among whoever was left when the public show was over; secret music not exactly presuming even an imaginary audience.  

House is a literary man-with others he bas worked up song cycles for Faulkner's As I Lay Dying  and Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies  an epistolary novel about the life of a Virginia mountain woman-and you hear that all too plainly on House's first two recordings, where he relies on the populist impulse to use the contrivances of literature to make the least hint of the literary disappear. No matter how primitive the words or the music, you hear self-consciousness before you hear anything else. But in House's new music, the feeling of the primitive, of the ineradicable, is like a power principle. He seems to have gotten his hands on the pen that can write a song that could have been written a hundred years ago- or, more to the point of the ineradicalist, a hundred years from now.  

House grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where his father sang and an uncle played blues guitar, but the old, fatalistic sound you hear in his music came to him not from his home ground but by way of the Nashville bookstore where he worked for fifteen years. One day, the manager loaned House a set of old albums, and for the first time he heard the profound 1920s singers Charlie Poole and Dock Boggs-white southern avatars of liquor; liberation, and death. He heard Boggs's "Oh, Death," recorded in the 1960s, when Boggs was in his own sixties, the song of a man asking Death to leave him alone for one more year. Boggs's performance - reissued this fall on Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968- is slow, baffled, combatively evasive. You can hear it as a shadow song behind the music on This White Man~ Burden, especially in the way House finds the heart of a piece by turning away from words and simply mouthing syllables: la dee dah, la dee dah.

That's House's way of stepping away from a theme, then circling back without being noticed. I first noticed it-that turn toward la dee dah, this refusal of words-in "Mansberger;" a story song that's an anomaly on This White Man's Burden but perhaps the easiest number to connect to. Then I heard that refusal everywhere, and it seemed like the real song, driving furious curses, unstable incantations, unrelieved despair; moments of doubt, and promises of escape.

"Mansberger" is the story of the destruction of a family; it turns into music only in its chorus. "A reflection our Almighty in heaven / Faith's its reward and oh, so sweet," House sings. He strings the words together too quickly, as if he can't afford to stop and think about them. It's all hurried and smeared, a Sunday-school lesson absorbed by rote. But then follows the real chorus, House's real music, which is not exactly a chorus but a singer musing over his own song, which now is not precisely his at all. As it slips out of its words, it represents a whole body of song, a whole culture, that is no more House's than it is yours or mine, and House talks to it, to the song, as if it were a stranger whose arrival had been rumored for some time. "Oh, ho," he says, trying to slip behind the strangerís back while seeming to look him in the eye. "Hey hey, la dee, la dee you, day dee"-and the last two clauses are lifted, raised into the air; the singer gazing at his own sounds as if they are portents of events so awful that the hint of a sardonic shrug creeps into the curl of the syllables, then vanishes as if ashamed. The stranger in the sounds will appear everywhere in the music as you learn to listen for him - could be God, could be the devil, could be House, could be you.

The plain American and his treasured speech, Chandler liked to say, was a trick, a literary construct; purity was a con, and the best American slang was "invented by writers and palmed off on simple hoodlums and ballplayers." He may be tight; he may be explaining Tom House. But House's music is proof of the satisfactions of being fooled.