Friday, January 13, 2006

Roots Culture

Genuine culture comes from the earth itself, the artist in harmony with the land, people, voices, streets, every whisper and vibration around him. (Have there been more authentic artists than the Carter Family?) What do I care about stuffy theorists from the Academy in France? Who are they to me? What can they say about life as I see it; what do they know about the world around me?

Singer Johnny Cash has had a connection to the history of the ULA, if only because his songs were on the jukebox at the seedy International Bar (now closed) in New York City's East Village. During our many meetings there in our first days we'd play Iggy's "Raw Power," as a reminder of our home city of Detroit, but we'd also play Cash's great versions of June Carter's "Ring of Fire" and Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe."

On New Year's Day I went with a friend of mine named Mary Kay to see the Johnny Cash film bio "Walk the Line." We met on Market Street (disorganized Mary Kay-- a local vagabond like myself-- was late but I was on a one hour-plus cell phone conversation with Frank Walsh anyway, Frank pouring forth oceans of words poems tales history worries reflections ideas), then M.K. and I walked a couple miles down Second Street toward the theater. At Washington Avenue at the Mummers Museum stood a hundred cops. What was this about, we wondered? The Mummers parade wasn't here, but in Center City, on Broad Street.

I thought the Cash movie as well acted as hyped. I especially enjoyed the early scenes. At one point Johnny's wife scorns Johnny's singing with two buddies on their porch. "That's my band," he tells her. "That's not a band," she sneers. "They're two mechanics!" (And ULAers aren't writers.)

In other words, a great movie. I'm sure most audience members didn't get all the references-- such as those to the Carter Family, or a playing of one of the family's historic recordings near the beginning. I'm not sure many understood the tremendous power of the scene showing Johnny Cash and June Carter singing Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" on stage, uniting several strains of American roots music-- drawing the unshakeable connection, THROUGH Johnny Cash, between the Carter Family and the greatest folk troubador/rock songwriter of them all.

Roots Culture: the Underground Literary Alliance embraced it when we brought two living, legendary embodiments of roots literature, Jack Saunders and Bill Blackolive, into our ranks. I doubt if more than a handful of people appreciate the significance of putting both men on stage as headliners when we held our 2001 Amato Opera House "Underground Invasion" show in New York City. If the ULA achieves nothing else, it had at least one great moment in underground literary history. (But we've had OTHER moments, including this past summer when Jack appeared at our big Philly reading. We'll have more of them.)

After the movie, sundown early evening, Mary Kay and I encountered a huge street party on Second Street, stretching for many blocks, consisting of Mummers and fans, neighbors joining in from open doorways. Mummer String Bands performed again their routines from the parade, this time uninhibitedly. "Wow!" I exclaimed.

"This is Philly!" Irish Mary told me. "This is the real parade."

It was like being at Mardis Gras. The Mummers are authentic ground-up working-class American culture, a product of city neighborhoods (and of neighboring towns); bands year long creating wonderful colorful costumes and rehearsing after hard jobs their intricate routines. The parade is their payoff. As far as I know they receive no corporate or government funding. No "Budweiser" banners anyplace. Much of the music as well as the famous Mummers "strut" are pre-jazz; early American culture magically replicated like a dinosaur spawned from DNA.

Beers everywhere. We walked through the happy partying. At Washington Avenue a Mummers band had taken over the intersection, performing routine after routine as traffic backed-up for miles in either direction, a vast mob of neighborhood folks applauded and danced, and the police looked on helplessly, enjoying the scene. At times Philadelphia is a wonderful city.

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