Boy Trouble: 2

1. Girl on the Billboard Michael Hurley
2. Forever Pete Drake
3. Pretty Girl Delroy Wilson
4. Wet Dream Max Romeo
5. No John No The Copper Family

This song, sung here by Michael Hurley, was originally written by Country and Western songwriter Hank Mills and recorded by Del Reeves in 1965. Country and Western developed several ways to vent the maudlin awfulness of its stock repertory of jilted pity songs, and aside from the odd hymn tune, novelty songs were an important sub-genre. It’s not surprising then that this alternative gives license to an interesting subversion of the established genre cliches.
Michael Hurley is one of those few singers capable of accommodating voices of both the controlled and the cuckold in a single performance. The male character is both undone and done over by his experience of the female character, and at the same time tickled, amused by her presence. He is both below, in his helplessness, and above, in his easeful misogyny and the care with which he warns us of the hazard. That’s an interesting interplay, a definite duality of positions, high and low.
The rolling, driving sound, and the long, long lines both speak openly, blissfully of happiness, and the effect is one of peculiar, motive joy; “I better get on my way.” This joy is partly in the discovery that we, as listeners, are left unhuddled, free to take in this duality from a remove. Del Reeves isn’t quite so capable of this sleight, and in his goofy, joke-telling delivery his performance comes far more from a position near to that occupied by the listeners, rather than his protagonist.
This is one of the odd anomalies in popular song. Pete Drake runs his voice through his electric lap steel guitar, and the result is a curious, uncomfortable auto-erotic spectacle. In the footage from the performance, I recall Pete Drake sitting stage centre with a thick rubber tube extending out of sight from the corner of his mouth, descending towards some hidden input on the instrument in front of him. It was a fabulous experiment, yet it takes little further analysis to see how it didn’t catch on. It’s rather one of those occasions  after which semiologists can rejoice. After all, the fine sound aside, we discover evidence for the suspicion that when a singer sings there are far more factors at play than that of mere music and words. Aside from those things, which are all in place here anyway, there is something unsettling, unwelcome, at a song whose normative musical parts have been so brazenly reoriented away from the human, towards the machine, and towards the collaboration of man and machine, especially. There result is a piece whose outward appearances are all acceptable, but whose signs point towards something unwelcome and transgressive, and not in the least affirmatory for those who might otherwise be attracted by the otherwise normal elements of the work. On that curiosity alone, it earns its place in this set.
It’s curious to discover that rocksteady and reggae are genres that, by this evidence, seem to accommodate songs whose joy is partly located in playing with or calling into question the strength of the masculine voice. The sentiment in ‘Pretty Girl’ is simple. Where other songs, also outwardly concerned with addressing the embattled sexual agency of the male character, may dwell on rejection, this one takes the reverse tack. Far from claiming or inflating masculine agency and appeal, this song uses the implication of one’s weak sexual appeal (also implicit to rejection songs) as a starting point for something much more interesting. The request of course sounds as disingenuous as it is unappealing. Where other songs wish for or project one’s greater beauty so as to enable social facility of one kind or another, this one is heading in the opposite direction; to consummate one’s own deficiencies in blissful marriage to the queen of slobs, much like King Knapperty.
This is a deliciously odd cocktail. It is certainly unfamiliar territory when in whose songs we encounter symbols of sexual ability and disability allied in one mix. The male voice here is certainly one of the most unappealing to be encountered in the set, perhaps in part because the sex act, or its invitation, is here correlated not with personal appeal, but with base biological maturity. We are unsettled by the fact that the single seductive argument deployed is that of the man’s ability to ejaculate. We are put in mind of the mating displays of animals, whose impressive regalia is triggered, sustained, and wound down in correlation with the hormonal cycle of the animal. But then, do we after all categorise mating displays – the bright feathers and red arses – as those of biological maturity or social appeal? That’s not an easy question to answer in the context of the animal kingdom, and if we admit that we also behave in manners not dissimilar to that place, the song itself becomes a provocative test case for our own understanding of sex. It also becomes very funny.
The notion that folk song is simple is often erroneous, and it usually accommodates just as much wisdom and complexity as it needs to. Unlike songs written to articulate the intelligence of their authors, it rarely accommodates unnecessary mitigations, qualifications, or complications. Rather, folk songs are complex in their own way, and for their own purposes. This song, however, is simple. If a few of the other songs in this set have dwelt on the curiosity of or fallout from partnering, this one deals directly with that theme. In musical terms, the song’s theme of rejection – “no” – serves as a quaint, poetic pedal point for the courtship, revealing itself as such in the final verse, in which it, “no”,  becomes one of acceptance. After the transgression of the previous songs, this one serves as a palate cleanser. A sweet, linear, symmetrical articulation of old-fashioned courtship.


Boy Trouble: 1


There goes the old questionable truism of Tolstoy’s, that all happy families are happy in similar ways, but all unhappy ones are unhappy for their own unique reasons. In the consideration of a certain set of songs that I’d compiled over several months, a variation on this truism emerges as a guiding principle of sorts, and approaches that something in popular song that I find nourishing and necessary.

Happy songs may be about happinesses of only a handful of sorts, and it’s not my wish to delineate these here, but I’d argue that one differentiating factor – a factor key in the differentiation of song as a whole – is the location from which the song is happy, or indeed sad. If happiness and sadness are determined to be directional – up and down respectively – then the properly enlightening property of a song is not to be sought here, but in the place from which the ascent, or descent, begins.

This set of songs is then something of an examination of that distinction, and it dwells mainly in songs of spiritual ascent (if not outright happiness) from a low position, as opposed to a high one.

The songs that are awarded with popularity and approval are, by and large, songs sung from a high position. By this I mean that they are songs whose moral compass, social interest, and personal agency, operate in a populated, normative sphere. Ones in which social systems and conventions are treated with assurance and reassurance. Songs whose claims to belonging among normative social phenomena are well-established, principal elements in their meaning, every time those meanings are themselves assembled by their listeners.

Crucially, too, they are songs powerful enough to draw nostalgia from the security of their surroundings and the comfort of their statuses, and which draw their crises from the fantasy of the loss and debasement of that comfort.

They are songs whose remit is to attract and marshal mass consent, to curate tastes, and not to establish distracting critiques. For examples, the mind here falls to memories of songs discussing night life, club-going, and the choreography of hetero-normative relationships, from whatever era.

But what of songs sung in a low position? These songs may express assurance of the rules and rituals of their milieu, but this milieu will be much smaller, and often expressed cautiously, in view of a superior, outranking norm imposing itself in the dark and shade of the song. This is what makes low songs fascinating for us.

But then what of low songs in the ascent specifically? These speak often of a certain disquiet, arising from the low position, mixed with three other things: desire for wish fulfillment, suspension of reality, and projection of fantasy. They then necessarily combine all these elements in their construction: the wish to be happy, the impossibility of being high, the experience of being sad, and the reality of being low. No wonder then that songs of this type stick in the memory, and require themselves to be sung so often.

In pursuing this latter category, I have compiled a set of 35 songs with which to test this thesis. Whilst songs by female singers are also numerous and fascinating, and may helpfully belong to a separate set, the set in question has been confined to male singers. Although something could perhaps have been gained by their intermingling, the desire was rather to avoid the notion of coupling, directly, or implicate the songs in a dialogue among and between merely two parties of a single transaction. Instead, reserving the set to songs sung with men’s voices, you are invited to settle in with and explore the plurality of experiences emitting from such, rather than be invited to confer in experiencing the unanimity of such a group.

descending mood

ascending mood



 fig. 1

In line with the imaginary divisions outlined in the diagram above, I’ve avoided songs of a thrusting or mercurial type, and gone towards voices of hurt, regret, shame, overwhelmedness, wonder, hubris, caution, hindsight, confusion, fixation, passivity, earnestness, and other kinds of expressions of non-mastery. I’ve avoided songs of belittled men (cuckold songs), or other examples of what may be termed ‘low/sad songs’, as well as songs of belittling or masterful men (high/happy, of a sort) because they seemed to deal too much with the bounding or picaresque assurance of behavioural norms, and not enough with the songs of a low, ascending nature.

The set of 35 divides into 7 of 5, and the following is the first.

1. Counting Durutti Column
2. Mass Production Song Alastair Clayre
3. Old King Cole Kevin Coyne
4. Motel Blues Loudon Wainwright III
5. I Confess Bonnie Prince Billy

If a commentary on the songs is at all required, it will be to constantly relate to and test the thesis guiding their collection. This isn’t really the place for analysis, and the songs are more than capable of explaining themselves. Nevertheless, a few thoughts might be justified.

Inauspicious non-mastery, and the compelling ironic nature of its performance in song. We interpret the act of counting, whether preliminary or arithmetic in nature, as an act of optimism, and we sense that the performance of increase is, in part, an increase in kind akin to one of any other sort; whether selling, buying, yielding, or accumulating, counting feels like an act of optimism.

There is dissolute non-mastery, above, but ‘Mass Production Song’ harks to the nervous disposition of solute, working non-mastery. Alasdair Clayre was a questing broadcaster and musician of academic origin. His preoccupation, under the employ of both the BBC and the Open University was, among many other things, towards chronicling the experience of radio among so-called ordinary people. He occupies the ambivalent role of the occupational academic, similar to that of John Stewart Collis in that sense, and this engagement gives itself away here in a voice that is more sympathetic than empathetic. And while it thrusts to honor the everyday terrors of the masses, it marks just as loudly the terrors of an outsider undertaking a task so impossible.

Kevin Coyne was a British radical, dwelling throughout his career on experiences of non-mastery below and in-between work of a wholly different nature. This song from very late in his career presents a compelling double choreography; occupying a voice both base and unremarkable, articulating a spirit of righteous arrogance. It is the direct inverse of the wise bard, a persona so often adopted by voices of masculine experience, and the song is just as rare for being so.

By way of contrast, this song seems ‘high’ in position. The voice is that of a singer, his occupation is to be heard, and his position is one of power. The evocation of vulnerability is one experienced not by someone out of their depth, but by someone too far within it. The song makes a bold claim for nuance on the basis of personal weaknesses, but the notion of hyper-competency is central to the narrative, and it is compelling as a counterpart to the other evocations of non-mastery in this set. This compelling quality may in part correlate with its ambivalent position among the dichotomies in fig. 1.

This is Bonnie Prince Billy singing a song of Kevin Coyne’s from the late 1970s. The chorus verse is typical of Coyne in its spirit of equivocation. A man is guilty of killing a cat. A grim crime perpetrated by a human in a position of power, and equally positioned not to have done so at all. In the confession, we briefly get the measure of a man who should have known better, and the matter begins to close upon itself just as grimly, but with a kind of optimism sharing its received light with the shafts falling on images of windows, hymnals, and pulpits. But then just as quickly, through confession is revealed motive, and the abjection of guilt is covered over with something else, and the cat returns as a figure of menace. This is a delight of a song, and evokes better than many others the recidivistic pleasure of redemption following failure.

Sleeve Notes: on the cover of John Renbourn

Is bad design good art?

At first glance, bad design comes from two edges of a spectrum defined by one factor: the extent to which power relations and hierarchies are held to bear on the resulting output. At one end, you have design that is blithe and luxuriously ignorant to the very real pressures, contortions, revisions, and market forces placed upon any given work. Or worse, design which in being so complicit or streamlined in its conformity to such pressures, fails to properly accommodate them as distinct and explicit elements in the work. On the other end, to which side my fetish pulls me, is the kind of work that all too visibly displays such relations. Since of design I’m often speaking of the kind of work that seeks to represent or market an artist, or artistic enterprise, there is quite often going to be a very real tension between the artist and the medium through which they are conveyed. Cover art, promotional material, retrospective, whatever. It is this interstice that I hope to illuminate here. To round off the metaphor, I suggest that successful design (not necessarily good, and vice versa), is partially defined by coming to rest somewhere in the middle of such a continuum.

If such tensions themselves are helpfully imagined in the linear form of a continuum, I will suggest that a deeper analysis of good design is better imagined as a window or threshold, another interstice upon which the interests and imperatives of three related parties are focused: the consumer, the producer, and the artist.

Test case

John Renbourn

John Renbourn’s first album, released by Transatlantic Records in 1965. Good design?

This is the cover art for a young British musician’s debut recording on a national label, released in 1965 in London by Transatlantic Records. The design is strong, even enchanting, but the context is a familiar one, and open to derision of one sort of another. The young artist posing in a rough, industrial milieu was a move played out countless times in this era, perhaps more so in the UK than in the US. There are three distinct impulses at hand here, which I will deal with one after the other.

The Visual Impulse

The view provides some rich, interesting visual textures and contrasts, and is similarly devoid of the overly literal, distracting, or deflating visual cues perhaps encountered closer to Renbourn’s typical environment: central London. Symbolically, the environment – in its textures and symbols – speaks of labour, strength, stress, and endurance, and also of a certain historical palimpsest; industrial development, industrial decline. All such visual and notional attributes are artistically relevant to the artist and the music, specifically in counterpoint to other similar if more anachronistic musicians and milieus rubbing shoulders in the record shops. So before we get onto the second impulse, the case for this design seems strong and comprehensible, successful.

The Market Impulse

As suggested above, John Renbourn’s depiction as heralding from, or at least haunting, these kinds of industrial fringes of London is a comprehensible distortion. In neither an aesthetic nor a market sense can we expect the depiction to be anything otherwise if it is germane to either, and so notions of authenticity are irrelevant. The product is a creation, and within realms of plausibility a rational consideration of underlying impulses works around simpler notions of authenticity. Truer still, as the record’s consumers we’re possibly more reassured by the sleight than not, despite claims of foul by people sold on the lie of authenticity.

Further, we must accept that the act of differentiation required isn’t between the record and the person, but between the record and another record. the British market for solo recording artists was a confusing one at the time, and vendors or buyers alike would have had a hard time distinguishing the visual cues in question from the more established if overlapping ones of the music hall, top of the pops, or nashville. In this sense too can we figure the ‘enriched symbolic reference’ of the John Renbourn album cover.


If not in popularity, John Renbourn’s marketeers would have had to battle with the overlapping visual language of popular acts such as the very popular, Jim Reeves.

Guitar Ambivalence

By 1964, the acoustic steel string ‘folk guitar’ had flooded British consciousness, slightly later apparently than that of the electric guitar. This being said, there were still few genuine ‘guitar players’ of the kind indigenous to the US, and the notion was unfamiliar to consumers, though it was well-established as prop. John Renbourn’s values were emerging from an itself emergent folk boom, but a boom that again in contrast to that of the US had no instrumental tradition. Or to be precise no tradition of instrumental song accompaniment, let alone an unaccompanied solo guitar tradition, both of which the US enjoyed. Of course there was a great tradition of dance music which was at best ancillary to the folk revival encompassing John Renbourn.

Rather the guitar as symbol on the cover of John Renbourn speaks to the influence of touring US performers such as Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGee, both of whom had an incalculable impact at the time. This subtext was hardly perceptible at the time of the cover’s design however, and there are but shades of this distinction to be seen. Witness the distribution of light in the Reeves and Renbourn covers compared. To the face and the guitar respectively.

This section serves to highlight but one thing: that unlike the guitar-as-prop, the utility of which is founded upon clear and commonly held signifieds, the guitar on the cover of John Renbourn is a rather more fraught participant in the drama; both appealing to one sign (the Reevesian guitar toter) and angling at another (the British folk revivalist) that to some degree lacked any such symbol of its own. All the more burden for design.

guitar player

Britain’s first ‘folk’ guitar virtuoso on the cover of his 1963 debut LP, released by Pye in 1965.

Indeed as meaning was rapidly accruing to such a symbol (the folk guitar on British album covers) through US revival imports and its native offshoots, it’s again key to recall that ambivalence and therefore market confusion still surrounded young guitar-playing musicians on the British market, as of course it did  in the US, too, where it was compounded by other factors. Being a potent symbol of itinerancy and self-sufficiency, the guitar player challenged norms core to toting pop musicians of the day, chiefly that of the Artists & Repertoire man, or rather the man who assured that neither met. This is a second sense in which the guitar provides food for thought in the marketing of John Renbourn.

The A&R machine was well in train when it met with the first of Britain’s home grown ‘guitar players’, Davy Graham, and his 1963 debut The Guitar Player deploys none of the cues seen later on John Renbourn, nor on Graham’s follow up record, the promotional shoot for which arguably saw him establish industrial chic as a guitar player’s prerequisite. Instead The Guitar Player was a product that declined to depict (or embellish upon) the creation story of the young British folk and rather angled for the middle of the road, with a suited and smiling Davy Graham in full restaurant mode, literally cut from whatever surroundings he may have been occupying when the photograph was taken.

History being what it is, we are left with multitude retellings of the folk boom and the hippy dream, yet without a clear idea of what the mid 60s middle of the road actually was. We presume it was something like Abigail’s Party, but earlier and worse.

If the guitar wasn’t to be violently recuperated as in The Guitar Player then it was incumbent upon design to establish it in accord with the other symbols on the cover of John Renbourn. The points above suggest that this was no easy task, despite the contemporary prevalence of the guitar making it seem so in retrospect. We may take the guitar (and its potency) on the cover of John Renbourn to be a charged symbol for these very reasons.

The Viewer’s Impulse

So far we have dealt directly with two parties; the designer/marketeers, and the artist/person. This is clearly insufficient for a consideration of the phenomenon of bad design, so we are left with the task of situating the viewer – or listener – to properly make sense of the implications of graphic design. While historical context has informed an analysis of the previous two, I’ll consider the viewer this time from a more experiential stance, considering the levies made by the product upon the consumer at point of sale. In the sense that the act of acquiring anything speaks to our desires, we can say that products cannot fail to levy or transact some toll upon the consumer. In this case we’re not talking of money, but of the quiet concession that something given physical form by another person conforms in some way to the content of our own desires.

In this case, what are they? Of course they partly settle upon the vicarious desire to be a tall young guitar wizard smoking a cigarette, with sufficient implied social fluency to find himself passing moments in an industrial backwater, whose physical labour finds its output not in such brute exertions but in the performance of a majestic repertory of song. That is one thing, and we are familiar with the small and constant sucking motion inherent in yielding parts of our identity to this or that enviable other. But this transaction is one of style and marketing, not design. The latter however has a part to play in the wider consumer experience in the way that it depicts power structures, which confess themselves too to be desirable for us dreamers.

In something I wrote a while back about DIY design, I touched on a deficiency for me lingering behind the otherwise fully disclosed charming engagement of the whole movement. It went to do with an irritation formed of collapsing the distinction between the art and the product. This comment may seem off piste for a lover of records, but records from a different era received a curious potency from their status as cautious, almost paradoxical outputs from multiple hands. One hand being the musicians’, others the marketeers’ and designers’. In the DIY age, musicians sought to eliminate this often fraught association and produce works that were seamless missives from their world. Such charm can be one-dimensional.

The threshold of good design

Returning to the cover of John Renbourn, we find a fine iteration of the multifaceted capacity of design, one which is determined far beyond the visual or aesthetic, but which still governs the user-end experience, and is ultimately governed by the visual. Unlike the principal of DIY design, which treats the product as a missive or keepsake, recordings produced by labels or design departments in order to promote an artist (such as the present case) perform more like windows, and as such declare themselves as the window or threshold – a liminal mid-section – between the consumer who perceives the record, and the artist who is perceived by the camera. The zone not governed by either is also the zone that encompasses all the other intriguing conflicts, angles, strategies and partial methodologies that in a simple analysis reveal themselves as plot lines in the production, marketing, and consumption of the artefact, one or two of which I have considered in sections above.

An early distillation of the concept.

An early distillation of the concept.

If the idea that records can be seen in this way – as thresholds or windows – is accepted, then it becomes obvious that this very function can be a leading factor in good design, or good art. There is an irony here which I hoped to highlight by reference to ‘bad design’. We intuitively take full disclosure and freedom of expression to be tenets of successful or good design, but I suggest here that design whose power or potency emerges from a charged and subtextually rich interface between consumer and producer, as it does on the cover of John Renbourn, emerges from interests that are often wholly undisclosed and highly vested.

This design phenomenon has a related outcome which is simpler than the writing-in of historical context and marketing strategies. This is that, in doing so, the artist himself or herself is left free, isolate, absolved of such dicey considerations, standing alone in an inner-city yard with his guitar, a cigarette, and a staffer telling him to stand under that rusty sign. Isn’t that how we’d like to imagine them?

Guitarist of the Other Shore: Robbie Basho in the 1960s

robbie basho myspace

This is a piece I wrote back in 2009 for the final stage of my undergraduate degree in music. It was a labour of love back then but sadly got swamped and lost in the months after university. Spurred on by the progress Liam Barker has been making with his astonishing Robbie Basho documentary project, I’ve been keen to get this piece back on the road at long last, largely in the hope of helping Basho to become a better remembered and better appreciated figure than he is at the moment. So I’ve now finished revising it and have uploaded it to Scribd. There are also musical excerpts to be heard, linked to from the document description there.

View this document on Scribd

Design as an Invasive Species

A natural consequence of the rise of the design industry and the complexity of its digital tools has been the equal ubiquity of the obviously attractive notion that design should ‘stand out’. This has produced work that neither ‘stands in’ nor has any meaningful or practical basis in its surroundings, both spacial and notional. This deficiency isn’t always immediately noticeable of course – and we do love flashy design – but it gives rise to a kind of, to use a popular phrase, ‘cognitive dissonance’ that I would argue is to the detriment of our wider, deeper experience.

No client in their right mind would green light a campaign wishing to yield to the competition in observation of some kind of priority complex, which is how a concern for a product or brand’s surroundings might otherwise be rationalized. Yet, there is something delusional and unsustainable about competition even at its most basic operation. Whilst fraudulent superlatives are restrained by advertising standards, the jostle and posturing of visual design is ubiquitous, and I would argue that the claims and inferences such sleights make on our person are close and invasive enough as to be worth examining, and even steeling oneself against.

I’m not speaking primarily of the superficial barrage to be seen on the high street. After all, the neon ecosystems of Tokyo and the bulb-bordered showbiz mirror-boards of Broadway are wonderful creations. There is or was in both a prevailing grammar arising from the technical constraints of the medium. My concern is directed several evolutionary steps down the line at, firstly, 3D and 2D digital design demonstrating the repulsion of any such constraints, and secondly at the bell-jar-like emulation of these same restraints some way down the line.

Precisely what form this emulation takes is discussed below, but, speaking of the first concern, above, I refer to the gouged and illuminated shop signs and facias bolted precariously onto shopfront brickwork, and the junk menus floating on a vivid sea of flames and swashes flush to the edge of the paper. Both demonstrate the honest and aspirational pursuit of designers working in an industry of rapidly expanding capabilities, and demonstrate too the seduction of providing the client with work projecting itself as selfishly unbeholden to any crutch or context, and little sated by concessions to form or function. After all, in a crowded market why argue for sensitivity to place when one’s locus is entirely constituted by market competitors?

But that word, function, is a hard one to get behind these days. In the intellectual see-saw of undergraduate essay writing, students of the humanities soon learn to discard it in favour of subtler and more progressive formations. Elsewhere, in architecture 101 the philosophy of function has been strangely overridden by attractive but obstructing glosses of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyds TSB building, conflating functionalism with the exaltation of function. Equally reductive glosses of vintage Modernism would, rather, point to a case-by-case consideration of function as a guiding principal of valid design. This isn’t merely, such a gloss would continue, a well-reasoned route towards form, but a way of ensuring that the inexorable consequences of building design are positive and affirmatory on a deeply human level.

Just as buildings could be described as enacting a certain violence in their tyranny over our movements (just think of that loathsome route to the water cooler, or the many and varied views of the mezzanine toilet door before you finally reach it on foot by some other route), advertising (and otherwise graphic) design is similarly violent in the claims it makes upon us as individuals. The touching upon one’s weaknesses and insecurities is part of the fun of conventional advertising, but the sense of meaninglessness and anomie arising from poor executions of this same core endeavor are not fun, valid, or successful if the net result is to confuse and belittle.

Again, I would argue that this consequence is not often perceptible when among the very same clamour of brands and markets, but in the (dis)quiet of analysis it must surely betray its own tell tale signs. Bummed out? Hacked off? Nothing ever quite feel right? That’s bad design.

Perhaps this is all simply a question of artifice plain and simple. If so, there is probably a decent refutation of this tendency to be found in new design that is meaningful without being entirely shorn of interest or wearily minimal in outcome. Vintage design is also a strong candidate for such a role. Certainly, such that has survived is often graphically brilliant, but is that the only reason for the fond esteem in which it is held? I would argue that the reason vintage design is promoted and recycled so readily is that it situates itself far more reasonably and resolutely in its surroundings, again both spatially and notionally.

It remains to follow a few more concrete examples. For work with a founding commitment to quality content and sincerity, good design can be pursued in good faith. Take for example a website documenting literary research and associated events. The trick would be to locate a new kind of functional expression and not to obscure or reify it unnecessarily. This is doubly hard using digital design tools that privilege artifice and affectation. Think perhaps of the archetypal parish church gazette with its badly xeroxed cardstock front and Courier-set contents, not out of some fondness for the quaint, nor with a wish to adopt or recuperate its charm, but because it does not confuse and alienate its readers with any startling dissonance between the manner of its production and the manner of its dissemination and consumption. It would take a designer of a certain acumen to work meaningfully and sensitively without either 1) failing to justify his engagement or 2) finding that the only way to adjust the original is to substitute a facsimile and work from there. If this last point is a little unclear, I should add that I’m thinking here of the apocryphal executive saloons whose genuine leather upholstery was re-impregnated with the scent of artificial leather because focus groups and test subjects had revealed it to be, psychologically speaking, more on point.

So, given these pitfalls, where might one establish an ethical basis for functional design? In the EFL world there is the notion of L+1; of teaching at a level commensurate with what is already known by the student, plus a further moderate and desirable step forward. This is the kind of design philosophy that still seems to hold true in my mind: locate the required content and find space for a further refinement or embellishment. This model doesn’t leave much oxygen for the alienating and confusing whims of digital designers, wont to create the kind of design that, were it text, would be so full of falsity, tautology, and contradiction as to be in need of wholesale revision.

There is a second consequence to this entire notion that might not be as convenient as the first. As in digital recording, where a ‘dry’ take has to be carefully re-flooded with artificial reverb to win back its presence and clarity, digital designers have found it necessary to re-seed their web-only work with the kinds of textures (paper, paint) and idiosyncrasies (poor registration of colours in screen or offset printing) found as a matter of course in print work of old and eliminated by normal digital processes. This is questionable but understandable in a web context, but what of this work when reproduced in print? How are we to resolve an image treated with an artificial paper grain texture now printed itself on paper? The outcome might not be all that visually disturbing but I would argue that the deeper consequences – I return to the notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – are much more profound and disturbing than we have so far recognised them to be.

The foregoing discussion has attempted to handle a few of the niggling conflicts and conflictions arising from a suspicion that contemporary design is a basically invasive species. It is hoped that an approach to design that foregrounds careful and fulsome consideration of important factors such as content, context, function, and purpose will lay the groundwork for an open and inclusive lived human experience.

Abandon Your Superstitions: Case Notes on the History of Sugar Water


Few now remember Tab Clear launching onto British shelves in early 1993. The Coca Cola Company’s ill-fated drinks innovation was similar in taste to the company’s namesake beverage, but colourless in appearance. It has since been noted as perverse that a product loudly proclaiming its clarity should have been distributed largely not in bottles or draft, but in aluminum cans. Half the few that ever experienced Tab Clear in the one and half years of its circulation ever witnessed its crystalline properties.

But the rot was set far deeper than in an issue of conveyance. The concoction disrupted like stones thrown onto still water the myth that its ancestor beverage, the stout-coloured Coca Cola, appears as such because it is itself more elixir than mixer. Though to Tab’s local advantage, it was to the detriment and diminution of its sugary progenitor that by the removal of opaquifiers and colourants the murk could briefly be dispelled, if only for a year and a few short months. To dare to unseat by religio-visual mytho-symbolism that un-filtered, pre-distilled ancestral glug from its throne of go-to refreshment was ultimately not a welcome trade for the drinks’ manufacturer, whose strategists were swift to pull the plug on their chemists’ bold vision.


The attendant notion that Tab itself marked the liquid-form disclosure of a pre-lapsarian ideal threatened to be a tempting paradigm shift for sugar water fans. Coca Cola is a mysterious drink by design; the alchemy of vegetable extracts and clandestine additives is a potent crutch for the savage, but Tab Clear opened up a space for crusades of reason, of clarity, of quests trajecting from immanence to transcendence, from tastes among contents to tastes within ourselves; it was a potent conversion myth for the millions of us already strung out on lashings of corn syrup. By severing appearance from experience, Tab Clear levied the hysteric notion that the potional was optional; ‘abandon your superstitions and step out into the light.’

In pitching for the mainstream, company chiefs were at pains to quell the notion that Tab Clear was aquarian in conception.[1] Yet it was never credibly the jock in subterranean garb; it was new age both in conception and construction, a harbinger of the additive era in a subtractive world. It was a shift entirely suited to the age; modern drinkers sought absolution and affirmation not the decanted and necked emetics of back street quacks. Press releases intoning brotherhood may have vollied forth, but the dye was cast the moment the white knight shunted into our trollies, and the consumer must make her choice.


The logic of such was pristine. After all, even the simplest of creations can spill its guts and sully the waters (what is ‘coke’ if not the chuffing wheeze of industrial combustion) but who among us may clear them except by the multiple stepped gradations of triple-filtration? Life tilts towards death as light does to dark, sound to silence; Tab Clear’s disappearance in the Summer of 1994 may have left semioticians parched, but down the barrel of accidental regicide it was the only available move to the kingmakers at Coca Cola.

1. Supermarket News, December 21, 1992 via Wikipedia.

On Whose Way: thoughts on Jumpin’ Judy

Listen to Erik Darling singing Jumpin’ Judy:

Download this

Diagrams for Jumpin' Judy

On Whose Way: thoughts on ‘Jumpin’ Judy’

My previous post about Erik Darling’s performance of ‘St. John’s River’ was concerned with locating the particular heft and anti-heft that caused the song-as-fragment to glow so enchantedly. ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ comes number two in an imaginary playlist of Erik Darling turns, and in several ways it is the perfect companion to ‘St. John’s River’. The case for companionship weighs both lyrically and musically, with the former being characterized by the same minor tableau and direct address applied in the other song, and latterly by the same suitably high-lonesome-cum-revival mono-melodic arrangement. A stranger link is found in another version of ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ at a few degrees remove from the present one. A verse not present in Darling’s performance makes mentions of “St. John’s River,” and I have used this connection to extend some thoughts about movement and axis as a technical device in folk song.

I – Preliminaries
Companionships and provenances

Before starting proper, some preliminary information and speculation is necessary. In the early 1930s, Alan and his father John Lomax recorded Allen Prothro singing ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ in Chattanooga, TN. It’s unclear quite when the recording made its way into commercial circulation, whether before or after Darling’s performance, and any further speculation would be pointless, not fairly crediting the info-stripped mp3 era with the silence it imposes. In other words, wordy speculation would simply mask – smoke – the inexcusable absence of easily available discographical data present in this case. Simply, the song and a Prothro-sent performance of it was likely first publically accessible in print form through Lomax’s 1934 collection, American Ballads and Folk Song. It should be noted here that while the recording (likely by Lomax) and the text (collected by Lomax) can’t differ too much in provenance, the text sung is different from the text printed, for whatever reason. The first part of this post will consider the Prothro and the Darling as they are sung, and a latter part will talk of the Prothro as it is printed- only within which are the verses about ‘St. John’s River’. It has served my purposes throughout to cast Prothro as the archetypal chain ganger. This is in fact likely to be false, but I felt that an analysis of Darling’s song would be better served by a human rather than abstract spur, however engineered.

The case for transmission

The tune and delivery in Prothro’s version of ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ is very similar to Erik Darling’s version, with the addition of a simulated hammer-pounding ‘Ha!’ keeping time between phrases, reserving a link with the song’s place in the chain gang. The printed version directs us to sing ‘rather slow—with pathos’, and this is not a bad description of Prothro’s delivery.

There are three possible sources for Erik Darling’s version: 1) Lomax’s published text 2) Lomax’s contemporaneous recording, and 3) some other less direct transmission. Evidence of the former would be encouraging, since the ability to breathe fresh life into even an accurate transcription is a skill very rarely acknowledged in the folk world since it transgresses some more holy tenets of the practice. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to recognise an aptitude possessed by the revival generation that serves even in its negative symbolism (the written word versus the living source) to vivify the old ways. But the case for Erik’s book-learning is weakened in this instance in an otherwise useful transcription by a fluffed top line, which can be seen here in an online facsimile of American Ballads and Folk Songs (see notes, below). The drop from the first ‘judy’ to ‘jumpin’ ought to be of a minor third, not a major third, and the drop of a fifth from A to D in the following bar should be of a fourth, A to E. Erik’s performance adheres more to the recording, not the transcription, so disregarding a musician’s intuitive license we can presume the printed song was not Erik’s only prompt, if it all. The verses sung in both versions are juxtaposed below.

Jumpin’ Judy – Erik DarlingJumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
All over this land
All over this landWell you kick and stomp and beat me
That’s all I know

If you treat me right
I’ll stay all day

If you treat me wrong
I’ll be on my way

Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
All over this land

Jumpin’ Judy – Allen ProthroJumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
All over this world
All over this worldGonna take this old hammer
Give it back to Jumpin’ Judy
Go tell her I’m gone

Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
I wonder where the captain’s gone

Don’t you want a dollar?
But you got to go home

Jumpin’ Judy, Jumpin’ Judy
What’s the matter now?

Well you kick me and you beat me
That’s all I know

Yonder come my captain
Who has been gone too long

Tell him how you treat me
So you better get gone

He got a 44, He got a 44
In his right hand

It has been noted already that the two Prothro sources do not match, but it is also significant that the recording fades out before the performance concludes. This is a reflection of the limitied capacity of the sound recording and storage medium that Lomax would have been using in the field (about three minutes) and explains why the book text is longer. The extra verses will be dealt with in the final section, below.

II – The Tune
The song as Erik sings it

Erik sings without accompaniment in a broad-stepping and precise style, complete with an admirable yelp up to the A above middle C. The tune is idiosyncratic and shapely, but in Prothro’s care is never far from having a blues or Pentecostal feel. While being close in content, Darling somehow infers much less of a blues tonality, and with its freer rhthym aligns the song more with a lament than a blues complaint.

Melodic Transcription of Jumpin' Judy

Download this

The tune, presented here, has four distinct phrases, combining in broad strokes in quite clear ways. Relaying between tonal centres of D, A, F#m and Bm, better sense can be made of the melody with a simple motivic analysis (see fig. 1, below). Phrase 1 starts high on D, descending a fourth to A.  Phrase 2 starts at the F# below and ascends a fifth to C#. Phrase 3 repeats the descending shape of phrase 1 but expands in range, falling from a high A down a seventh to B. The final phrase, repeated once with a minor variation, has a cadential feel, ascending then descending to rest on B. This final phrase suggests a harmonic resolution from F#m to Bm.

III – Reading the Songs
Prothro’s armed captain

Being a chain gang song, ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ would originally have been sung by convicts to mitigate labour, partly by keeping time and partly by commenting and commentating on their surroundings, their overseers in particular (whom we naturally picture on horseback in hard sun). Judy is a recurring character in chain gang songs (as is Rosie, who often brings good luck), and the word ‘jumpin” is thought to refer to Judy’s defiance towards her guards and to describe the manner in which someone works “when driven by an angry guard” (American Ballads and Folk Songs p.82).

This guard – deferentially ‘captain’ – is an enduring preoccupation in the Prothro version, and he figures heavily in the song’s central fantasy of escaping, and the fear of being caught doing so. This fixation is host to our sense of paranoia and, us being free men and women, wrongfoots are conception of what to think about when thinking about escape. We may think of plans, chances, mark hints, lapses, and weigh probability, but the chain ganger’s first thoughts are, “I wonder where the captain’s gone…[he’s] been gone too long.” This errant note of concern – of need – is an offbeat and effective testament to deeper captivity, and a highpoint of Prothro’s song.

In following the singer, our eye settles on the captain’s weapon. From the expansive first verse, “all over this world,” the song (as we hear it) narrows to a very local, fixated subject: his .44. If we take the song to be a meditation on escape, then it is unsurprisingly concerned with the obstacles to this, and a consideration of the captain’s coiled threat (his gun) is necessarily one primarily of vigilance. But the gun’s not holstered; we have the captain returning with weapon in hand- further cause for collective vigilance.

Since we can imagine the verses called by a leader and taken up by the chain gang, it’s plausible to imagine the verse being sung as a form of status update on the space around the men, a commentary on something wider that does not need to be voiced. The gang knows where the captain has been and knows what a protracted absence might imply, and so know that a pistol holstered and a pistol brandished are two different things. If it is not too offensive, I am put in mind of a group of birds, serried on a wire.

Darling’s treatment

Darling presents a very different text, with two of his four matching Prothro’s, and two that are harder to pin down:

If you treat me right
I’ll stay all day

If you treat me wrong
I’ll be on my way

Narrative and cast in the Prothro are more implied than evident, and our attempts to attribute voices to either the singer or Judy is frustrated, perhaps by the song’s construction from stock verses as per the will and whim of a lead caller. The crucible of Darling’s revival praxis would understandably have been less comfortable in permitting such refractions, and his version uses ambiguity and implication in wholly other ways.

It’s been shown that Prothro’s version effects (brings about) a shift in scale between the first and final verses. Darling’s is by contrast almost palindromic, with the song hinging either side of the near ultimatum excerpted just above, with a cursory broadening of scope either side of this. Like a graphic ‘V’, this structure mimes the opening and closing of a book, and in its fleeting commencement, consummation, and conclusion is teasing in its idealization of the song fragment – the reconstructed excerpt – as a form unto itself.

This is a sort of curate’s delight, a connoisseur’s teehee- a sonic distressed look couture. The fine lapidary form in which Darling sets the song is not so much or so simply a revision or reworking of his source, but is dialectical in its retrieval of one song-as-phenomenon (and with it its hallmarks of fragment and agency that I have been discussing here), and the subsequent transplantation and transcription of its perceived qualities (fragment and agency) into a form that gives them precedence and autonomy as artistic techniques alongside the song itself. I am speaking here of a) a fetishisation and expert redeployment of the qualities inherent and essential to the original and b) the act of extracting (song as ore is a nice idea) such qualities so that they are no longer constituent, processual, structural consequences born of the very sociological origin of the Prothro version but artistic qualities displayed in such a manner as to be present as the result of careful artistic assembly, not of bonded chemical processes (to extend the mining metaphor).

This is certainly an abstract thread, but I am following it in an attempt to get at the heart of a) Darling’s construction of an art song and b) what kind of dastardly relationship modern artistic process requires of its source material. Of the latter, I have suggested that it takes the form of a very subtle recuperation of extra-song qualities perceived in source material by the folk revival artist (who we can assume possesses a strong hunch, or taste, for these same extraneous features). It’s not all about the song as it is sung, but the wider constellation of any given song in any given performance. I have not gone all that far into examining exactly what of these extra-song properties is appealing to the artist, but I would argue that my discussion of the fragment – reified or not – is one such idée fixe.

The question remains, how does the artist actually execute this process of extraction, and in so doing better refine and control the song-as-art? I would argue that it is in large part achieved by the careful verse structure of the song (see: palindromic, above). According with this recto-verso ‘V’ form, the song marshals other techniques the investigation of which can be useful in two distinct ways. Firstly, to better understand the lyric in and of itself, and secondly to further explore the song’s complex relationship to its sources and its equally complex satisfaction of singer and audience desires and fascinations (largely to do with potent notions of authenticity). It is the former thread that I now propose to take up again. A discussion of the latter will follow.

A dance for two people

From the source’s richer bequeathal, Darling’s version features a cast of just two, leaving the Captain out entirely and ‘‘Jumpin’ Judy’’ abstracted, baffling in her opacity. Darling’s version uses this clarity to gently equivocate in its duty to delegate the balance of power, a vacillation constituent to the best folk love songs, ‘St. John’s River’ included.

Well you kick and stomp and beat me
That’s all I know

This relationship is abusive and possessive, with mind and body fought over on parallel fronts. Darling’s apparent revision of the Prothro source in the first line here (from ‘kick…beat’ to ‘kick…stomp…beat’) is a bloodsport combo in the best sense, coached by the literary law of threes. The grace of the following line is an object lesson in lyric writing. A lesser song might appeal to quality (I hate that you kick and stomp and beat me) but in appealing to quantity – abuse begetting paucity (that’s all I know) – the song is enriched in line with another favoured dichotomy – showing above telling.

But further, the abused are driven to locate a plane on which to establish a system of exchange of whatever kind with the abuser. This is a stage in the path towards triumph. It may not be on the more obvious level of the destitute, the broken (expressed in terms of quality), but to gain strength from abuse is, in the first instance, to have learned how to gain- by what chemical process to bind the mal-exertion and mal-attention of evil in a balanced system of exchange rather than in acts of dissipation and squander on the part of the abuser, and forlorn receipt on the part of the abused. It is this task that defines strength in adversity, and the second line shows us this.

That’s all I know

To gain from one party, some kind of exchange relationship needs to be established or be reconfigured for one’s benefit. This is why strength is required- to gain one has to define or recognise the parts to be relinquished, and then to bring them into the kind of proximity befitting transaction. Proximity to one’s abuser is understandably dangerous, and this is partly why it demands strength. This lyric expresses as much, and is the reason it’s treatment of abuse is so compelling.

Master and servant relationships are paradoxical things by construction. Discrepancy of rank is mismatched by an intimacy in other respects. Indeed status discrepancy itself has been recognised as a mechanism for coping with exceptional physical or intellectual proximity among people. Think of the barber profession, typically of low status- the concession implied by surrendering one’s bodily profusions is counterbalanced by debarring the barber from one’s wider society. I have been talking of the yielded and the yield in this system as being separate items, but the verse shows us that this is not necessarily the case. Rather, in this case knowledge or experience is shown to be the very thing uniting in strange proximity the abuser and abused. Just as the barber client is debased by yielding his trimmings, the abuser debases himself by so outwardly prosecuting his desires, fears, and prejudices. This is what the abusee knows- this is all they know. The transactions placed upon the abused become the very corpus upon which reasoning and retribution can take place. In this sense, it is possible to see how the above verse can be said to effectively communicate equivocation in so far as the song’s balances of power are concerned.

Returning to the third and fourth verses, the merest armour-chinks of self-determination in the second are followed by the clearest of ultimata. They speak the psychology of positive reinforcement, and their primitive cause and effect mock at the greyscale morality of the abuser.

If you treat me right
I’ll stay all day

If you treat me wrong
I’ll be on my way

Yet neither fine form nor clarity nor irony quite get at the charm of these central verses. There’s a modesty of scale that is a welcome substitute for the small cast melodrama to which a song of this premise might otherwise aspire. Firstly, the rubric of romantic comportment is unstated, suggesting courtship is a fixed, stable, possibly even local procedure in this world. The rigs of abuse may then be similarly given, held to be self-evident, part of the same rough-and-tumble of these people’s lives.

The second lines of each verse also speak to our interest in charm, and call to mind the bittersweet cadence of the small-town crush so deftly expressed by Leonard Cohen:

You go your way
And I’ll go your way too

In our verses it is not quite a decision between staying and going, but a decision between heading off and seeing out the rest of the day. This is not the cynical matrimony of the blues (‘crying won’t make me stay’), but a play-date visiting song marred by a lover’s quarrel. We can fair imagine elder relations hovering on the home ground periphery.

Imagining this song cast as a romance of this kind accords not only with the keepsakely form of the song, but also with Darling’s substitution of ‘land’ for Prothro’s ‘world’. This is a country sketch, and land is demarked – pegged out – by the span between two lovers. The outdoorsy skin-close linen den enisling – cloistering – love in its shade. The world doesn’t come into it.

Of course, I have chosen to read this song as it may have occurred to a listener of Erik Darling’s record, on the hearing of which there is little indication for the uninformed listener that this is a chain gang song in origin, as I have taken it to be elsewhere (and thus facing freedom above love). I have not had the pleasure of consulting the Darling LP sleeve or notes, which may provide some pointers for the keen. A reading of the Darling version in the knowledge (presumably in which he sings it) that this is not principally a romance song provides some equally interesting avenues to consider.

Darling in the chain gang

One that stands out, speaking still of verses three and four, is the wit inherent in a captive’s hollow barter:

If you treat me right
I’ll stay all day

If you treat me wrong
I’ll be on my way

For the chain gang working on the roadside (as they are often depicted), the ‘way’ (the road) was something uncommonly conflicted- a symbol of liberty defiled, and these verses give voice to this concern. Irony cuts through the song and serves the genre’s given strength: to comment and commentate on the work of the chain gang and the particular changing conditions of captivity. It is this triumphant reading that is most lost in Darling’s interpretation, and, equally, most likely to be lost on his audience.

IV – Performance and Transmission
Revival praxis

Having gone some way towards a reading of the song as a text, there’s now space to tilt at the other slightly more speculative approach: that of further exploring “the song’s complex relationship to its sources and its equally complex satisfaction of singer and audience desires and fascinations (largely to do with potent notions of authenticity).” First of all, it may be interesting to compare the ways these songs might have been constructed and wherein each lies the heart of the song as it is known and owned for each singer. Namely, in the parts or in the whole?

Darling sings a tight, coherent version that is nonetheless filled with the suggested and the implied. Prothro’s is more detailed but works less hard to assemble this data into a narrative work. Both works draw on a stock or fragmentary base, but arguably terminate in very different places, with ambiguity muddying and clarifying our understanding of the song in different ways.

As has been stated, Prothro’s casts a long shadow of authority, but is less faithful in his stage direction. Darling takes a more lyric approach by using his fragments to sketch an outline of modern emotional rhetoric.

Both appear fragmentary, but their respective fragments cohere in different ways, in different directions, and at different moments in their construction. This results in two very different songs whose parts relate differently to their respective wholes. My interest in exploring this is because I think it reveals some of the deeper conditions of both songs and the people and places that made them: chain ganger and folksinger. A comparison of these relations is attempted in fig. 3, showing Prothro’s stock sending forth into multiple renderings of the same song. In this performance context (the chain gang), song is not reified or isolated as it is on the stage, so the idea of a definitive, through-composed piece is less applicable, hence the diagram indicating multiple iterations of the same song.

By contrast, Darling’s version is more strongly impelled by an attempt to marshal and curate its parts and to turn the inference and implication of its fragments – its stock – into something understated and lucid enough as to infer a wider milieu, a living habitat for the song. The conditions of the chain gang that bred an earlier recorded version of the song were not impelled by these same artistic and song-centrifying techniques, and do not share the luminous, vivifying quality radiated by Darling’s performance.

The diagram to the right in fig. 3 attempts to place Darling’s song in a larger system and to define its relation to tradition. It is guided by an understanding of the nature of Darling’s work as a city-bound professional folk revivalist. Here the trace of historic performances (and in these arrows figure the Lomaxes) is marked in the new Darling-era matrix as fragments. I take this term to mean the musical material that traverses and itself connects two historically separate eras. I regard these fragments as such primarily because they demand their own course of reclamation and appropriation, not just to cross time but also to cross social groups defined in parts racially and socio-economically. In other words, Darling was a white middle-class city-dweller, our chain gang singers were not. This gulf, added to the rupture of all other likely processes of transmission, explains the presence of fragments as an integral part of this schema.

Diagrams for Jumpin' Judy

Fig. 2 also addresses what I think are some differentiating factors in both performances, with a special attempt to explain their difference in sound by exploring with whom custody and agency lands. It hinges on the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic creation, in other words on the concept of a division between shared and owned parts and processes of a song. I contend that it is those parts and processes that are owned by and intrinsic to the performer wherein which one is able to exercise one’s control as an artist. Being a modern professional folksinger, Darling controls the song as a whole and shares (and cannot claim to possess in isolation) verses and fragments that would have been grist to the folk revival mill. This corresponds with our conventional understanding of what the artist controls and is responsible for (the song itself) and is one reason why Darling’s performance is so pleasing. There are, as the left side of the diagram shows, other places to locate one’s control in musical performance that can plausibly replace the song itself (in stock, for example).

As our (perhaps unreasonable) embodiment of the chain ganger, Prothro’s creative control doubtless labored over the learning and devising of applicable verses, both stock and novel (let’s not be prematurely seduced by the idea of the volk mind), and his part in the whole would have centred there – on his stock – not on marshaling the more ineffable touches upon which Darling sets his stall. The difference being, such that Prothro engaged in creative work upon this song (which all performers do), it would have been to continuously decant and replenish the stock of verses and notions both narrowly and broadly associated with the song, which was shared and performed by the gang. This being the case, we have no need to picture Prothro or any other at the head of the chain gang fretting over the form and finish of the song, and over the shimmer and ring of the piece as it ends, or the hush and gosh of an imagined audience. These conditions, which we take for granted based on our experience of song and our conditioned response to it, are largely inappropriate for group work song, especially penitential work song which, as we discussed above in relation to the (notionally horseback) captain, has one eye on the extra-musical exigencies of incarceration.

After all, the chain gang is not primarily a musical environment, and we should remember that when discussing its music. To make an obvious if still partisan point, this is why the common sight of a ‘musical director’ at the helm of potemkin, reformed, or token music-producing groups based on ones similar to this (the chain gang) is such an uncomfortable sight. Reforming group relations with a disregard for deeper structures (see figs. 1 & 2) will result in this kind of redundancy, which I would argue is the very thing that discomforts – even discomfits – us. (It is also why the same musical director is a harmonious sight in contexts to which it is native- the stage, bandstand, or concert hall.)

This attempt to localize individual artistic agency is served by fig. 2, showing how Prothro (left), in serving the song, submits his stock in the course of performance. He makes his choice based less on narrative or inferential delicacies beyond his control, but on more circumstantial factors. The point is, it is not necessarily because narrative or poetic inference is less important to the musicians or that they are somehow incapable or insensible, but that a) other factors instead are positioned within the realm of agency for the individual participants (stock and invented verses) and b) extra-musical (not song-centric) factors are foregrounded for the collective.

To summarise, we control the things we own. We control the things that are intrinsic to us. Prothro uses intrinsic stock phrases to comprise a song, which is sung collectively. Darling uses extrinsic fragments to comprise a song, which is sung individually. As a professional folksinger, Darling shares the fragments and owns the song. As a member of the chain gang, Prothro contributes the phrases, and shares the song. Prothro’s control is contributory, and Darling’s is summatory. One may appear stronger than the other, but levels of involvement and participation are equal. Nevertheless, it is hierarchicial: stock below, song above.

More relativising

To return to my talk of shimmer and ring (a song being able to have a certain finish) and hush and gosh (a song being able to lay claim to the spaces before and after its performance, often shown by the presence and behaviour of the audience), it is again not all that hard to imagine a performance context less governed by these attributes than the ones we are trained to acknowledge and reinforce (the stage, the record, the television). Secondly, the absence of any meaningful anticipation or reception of a chain gang song outside of the singers themselves (unless the captain is a fan, or Lomax & Lomax are in attendance) is sufficient to explain why we are less able to safely think on it in the same way as we are invited to appraise a bona fide musical performance by a professional singer before an audience. That is not to say the rest is silence; indeed there is plenty to think about.

This might all seem a little nebulous, but I am guided in these speculations by a primary interest in the concrete properties of a particular performance, some of which I have mentioned already, and in interrogating such properties find it worthwhile to look back at the deeper structures and encompassing conditions I have been discussing. In essence, fig. 2 attempts to visualize the structures relevant to the performers, and posits a simple link between the two, shown with an arrow.

Attacking and defending

I should add here that an insensibility towards the varieties of musical motive and context (which I aspire to countermand here) is exactly the cause of the kinds of obfuscatory drivel that serve to muddy even the preliminaries of musical understanding and leave us to describe certain musics as ‘raw’, or worse, ‘authentically raw’. These words are used to get at something that, in their very use, is shown to still be out of sight- the mere glimpses of which I have attempted to define as shimmer, finish, or the lack thereof.

Seeking to isolate one or the other performance type, or treating (if only provisionally) chain gang performers as fully blind to the idea of the reification of song (native to the revival) is a convenient but risky tactic, even potentially insulting. It is dangerous not to credit every individual with the kinds of bifurcated, multifaceted drive to perform that I have here been reserving for professionals (or worse, non-convicts). But the ability to identify and readily dissolve such dichotomies, while rightly impelled by an aversion to entrenchment and prejudice, is too often lazily deployed as a mark of modern intellectual sensitivity. There is a place for this of course, but space (immunity?) should also be provided for convenient abstractions to remain whole whilst they are of use. This is my defense for treating the chain gang as an inviolate abstraction, uncomplicated by imperatives that I instead reserve for the professional performer, here representing (or represented by) Darling. Of course (he writes dissolvingly), people are complicated beings. I do not intend to discredit, and am in fact excited by, the very plausible notion of a member of a chain gang training an expansive and reflective eye on the sounds he is hearing and making and changing. But likewise I do not place a value judgement on his not doing so. Touché.

For all these reasons – and this is a plea for relativism as much as anything else – it takes only a little reflection to unseat strength of narrative and clarity of expression (Darling’s churches of choice) from their positions as the measure of value and importance in contexts otherwise united by the broad concept of song. That being said, this argument may be little more than confessional, since I have spent much of my time here reading the texts (looking at strength of narrative and clarity of expression and so on) in relative isolation, the attractions of which I have been trying to qualify and contextualize in this latest part.

I have been most interested in pursuing these attractions through Darling’s version, the very finish of which invites the kind of meditation that an essay like this is justified in labouring over without suffering a complete crisis of purpose. I may still be dancing about architecture, to quote Elvis Costello, but you can’t fault the view.

V – Tracing Axes
The river surfaces

This remaining part dwells in the umbra of the text-only verses touted at the outset (contained below), and takes advantage of this hinterland in adopting a new line of interest largely tangential to the foregoing discussion. Remember, this special space is accompanied not simply by a shift in principal medium from sound to text, but by an incidental soundtrack all of its own: that of the needle of John Lomax’s sound recorder turning in the lead-out groove having exceeded the aluminium or celluloid disc’s storage capacity. Is this slipping off the record, in both senses, sufficient to give us a sense of license in our treatment? No, but in the encroachment of sound silence there may open up a space for deeper collusion between incumbent texts: that which testifies (the original manuscript) and that which reads (the present one).

Below is a comparison of verses mentioning ‘St. John’s River’. On the left are the relevant verses of ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ printed in American Ballads and Folk Songs, and on the right is the relevant verse from ‘St. John’s River’, transcribed from Erik Darling’s performance of the song. This is our material for the following part.

Jumpin’ JudyIf she asks you was I running
You can tell I’s flyingTell her I crossed the St. John’s River
With my head hung down
St. John’s RiverBaby, did you her me?
Your sweety’s going to ride the Cherokee
On the St. John’s River
Riding and crossing

The beginning point of this comparison concerns the two ways each protagonist assails the waterway, with one riding downriver, the other crossing over it. This forms a + or x in our minds, with the perpendicular lines of approach providing an impetus for investigating other stages for perpendicularity in and extending from the song, especially to do with diverging social experiences and their expression in transportation in life and in song.

Although it may be unnecessary to establish a racial division between songs by taking ‘St. John’s River’ to have its origins in specifically white American folk tradition, the treatment of public transport and home furnishings (see notes, below) means that the song automatically inhabits more mainstream social footings than African-American songs of the era tend to do. If that is the case, then the two songs together – ‘St. John’s River’ and ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ – present us with an interesting schematic (a procedural diagram) for routes of escape in and from society; one man goes down river, another kind crosses it. (I should qualify this by saying that the Twain-sent image of the rafting Southern bum would somewhat weaken this construction, since our schematic equates riverways with societal subscription.)

The social status of groups (if not ethnicities) also maps itself onto the other great vein of American topology- the railroad, with the phrase ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ speaking of the very real way in which the tracks themselves often became a desire line of urban segregation.The analogy of river and railroad is not entirely sensible though, since the two sites of crossing or following – and the opposing axes that these two acts (crossing and following) together construct – connote different things in either site. To begin, let us consider our x axis – ‘following’, in relation to river and to rail.

Flowing and following

‘Riding the blinds’ (travelling on the outside of the train carriage) and the railroad bum are key images in American folk tradition and are particularly resonant in African-American song, being demonstrative of the poor status endured by blacks in America. The river as an equivalent highway, however – rich in symbolism and experience – is substantially more diaphanous. Huckleberry Finn and Old Man River aside, this would require further exploration. Riverbank calamities are many, and sea ones just the same, but songs taking place on and about the riverways are more elusive. The river surfaces in Cajun song, but as the swamp or bayou or some other wetland, amphibious in nature, and as such deliciously corrupting our chosen dichotomies!

To the y axis – crossing. Initially, river crossings bring to mind the collection of Scottish ballads that relate the crossing of the Clyde in various tragic circumstances. Here, crossing is crossing over, from one state or status to another. In ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ the crossing is a flight from captivity to emancipation, whereas in the Clyde ballads it is a staging point in a larger tragedic orbit. The very fact that the protagonists in these tragic ballads dwell in the river rather too long – crossing and recrossing as a foundation of the narrative – is an indication of how malevolent this site can be, especially if its symbolic status is pushed too far.

Elsewhere, The gospel song Cross the Rivers of Jordan recasts the story of the Israelites as a yearning for salvation and emancipation and judgement, and this reminds us that the river crossing is also a Christian theme.

Crossing is, of course, at the heart of this. River songs that take place on the banks are altogether more ambivalent; from murder ballads (Banks of the Ohio, Oxford Girl), love ballads (The Bold Fisherman) and bawdy sex ballads (The Bush of Australia), crossings remain unconsummated.

Having begun by considering the significance of the river in two American folk songs, we have located two opposing approaches – literal approaches in this case – to the river, and have suggested that they could, figuratively and schematically, be drawn as opposing axes. I suggested that these axes could be treated, opposingly and individually, as representative of routes of escape, the one mainstream, the other not (following and crossing respectively). If this idea is at all valid, then it might suggest two qualitatively different modes of escape; with or against the mainstream, using these modes in counterpoint to what is being escaped- are we escaping with the masses, following the river, or from the masses, across the river? By way of explanation, it might be worth going back to the original song examples:

In ‘St. John’s River’, a free man uses the river as a public highway to escape a woman. In ‘Jumpin’ Judy’, a wanted man uses the river as a boundary or perimeter to escape a larger foe; a putative enemy, malevolent authority, or hostile society, depending on the song.

The idea of axes is made significant by overlaying the two songs, and imagining how their respective conditions of escape are effected (brought about) and heightened by the presence of the river in song. Using the idea of axes also implies a nexus, and this is where comparisons can be helpfully made between the two songs. I choose to stage this nexus visually, on a wide part of the St. John’s River, with a paddle steamer going in one direction and, say, a coracle in the other.


My thanks Anthony Vaver’s pleasing Early American Crime website for information on ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ and the Lomaxes.

John Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) is available online here: ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ can be found at this address:

The recording of Allen Prothro singing ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ is available on Document Records DOCD-5576 Field Recordings Vol 2 North & South Carloina, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas 1926 – 1943. The recording of Erik Darling singing ‘Jumpin’ Judy’ was released in 1961 on the LP True Religion. Both recordings are likely to be available as downloadable mp3s.

My Happy For Me: thoughts on St. John’s River considers the treatment of transport and furnishings in this song.

Read the essay on Scribd

Download the essay and a recording of me reading it