Friday, May 20, 2005

The History of Roots Lit Part I: The Appeal of the Authentic

Traditionally, as a reaction to the stale and contrived, cultural historians have sought to discover the true sources of art-- the natural talents who kicked everything off.

With pop music, for instance, there's a thrill in hearing founding rock n roll recordings like the r & b classics "Gee" and "Eddie My Love," and the rockabilly "Party Doll," because you're experiencing the creation of a genre. Historians push farther back-- to original folk artists like Robert Johnson and Leadbelly.

During the brief explosion of zines (zeens) in the 90's, those who were most visible were the quirkiest and loudest-- while other more original talents were obscured. The thousands of teen girls buying Gogglebox, for instance, didn't realize it was a homage to Cometbus.

Those who became interested in the scene, like myself, found out about zine originators like "Bikini Girl" Lisa Falour, but also about another layer of underground self-publishing writers who predated zines. Pioneering music historians like Alan Lomax once wanted to hear music that was uncorrupted by trickery, refinement, and commerce. I realized there were WRITERS in America who fit that goal. Among them, two stood out for their originality, charisma, and the strength of their commitment to their art.

I first heard about Wild Bill Blackolive from a zeen-collecting librarian in St. Louis. Later, after Bill and I both had strong letters in Zine World, I picked up our correspondence. Blackolive is a true, uncorrupted original. He had a brush of contact with the Beats in the early 60's, but his writing is only superficially like theirs. If anything it's Beat writing taken to another level. As I've written about before on this blog, the stronger influences on Bill are the dialects, rhythmns, and outlaw legends of his isolated east Texas world. It's as if Bill has captured and reproduced the spirits of his landscape, the 19th century voices of those who'd gone before. Bill is a natural phenomenon-- the sound of authentic America, of the land itself.

Every bit as much an original is another southern writer (in this case Florida and Georgia), Jack Saunders. In the 90's Jack was one of those DIY folks, like cartoonists T.R. Miller and Yul Tolbert, that every zeenster eventually heard about; their work was mailed and traded to such a widespread extent. Jack's art remains unclassifiable. It's readable, transparent, informative, satirical, and folksy, oscillating between humor and quiet outrage. Jack feeds on American music, on southern jazz and blues, and embeds the vibrations of this music into his narratives amid the story of his life and commentaries on the world.

One of Neal Pollack's entertaining satires of the ULA described an "incomprehensible 4,000-word monologue by a lunatic who lives on a motorboat in a Florida swamp." From the clueless depths of brainless ignorance, Neal was mocking roots writers like Jack and Wild Bill.

When I put together the ULA's New York City Amato Opera House show in 2001, designed to present the best of the literary underground on one evening on one stage, I asked Jack Saunders and Bill Blackolive to headline the event; to read alongside great young zeen writers Steve Kostecke, Mike Jackman, Wred Fright, and others. We needed to show underground lit's continuity; that we HAD roots; that our new art was carrying on a cultural tradition that could be traced back to America's hinterlands; its music and its history; to obscure nurturing spots in places like east Texas and Georgia.


Michael Matheny said...

It's great to still see Lisa Falour around doing what she's doing. I remember Cantara swapping mail art and flyers with her back during the early 1990s when I was writing a serial novel for her old zine, Absinthe--NOT that fancy lit quarterly, which is someone else's and came a lot later.

(My three novels, which she calls The Fate of the Nation Trilogy, but are actually just about a bunch of working stiffs who have weird adventures, are available for free at

Cantara now runs a webzine called "Beating Our Tiny Fists on the Big Hairy Chest of the Corporate Literary World".)

By the way, what kind of beer do you like?

Tim Hall said...

Oh Please, Karl. You know as well as I do that the last great undergrounder to get anywhere was Yiyun Li, who the Paris Review miraculously discovered in their slush pile and plucked from a life of obscurity in the Iowa Writer's Alumni Association and the pages of The New Yorker.

King said...

Since moving to Philly I've gotten to like Yuengling Lager, which they don't sell in Detroit.