“WE ARE DETERMINED OUR AUTHORITY SHALL BE FULLY RESPECTED”: Fiddle Tunes and Primitive Selfies in the Techie Heart of Darkness
Imperial Majesty Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton the First, self-proclaimed emperor of the United States, defender of Mexico, failed South African rice baron, trust-funder, owner of apocryphal dogs Bummer and Lazarus, model for the King in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who once ended an anti-Chinese riot by positioning himself between protestors and Chinatown residents, chanting the Lord’s prayer until all was calmed, wearer of beaver hats adorned with peacock feathers, bearer of divers canes and umbrellas, first conceived of the San Francisco Transbay tube as early as 1870, upon issuing one of his more batshit Imperial decrees: “WHEREAS, we issued our decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of a suspension bridge from Oakland Point via Goat Island; also for a tunnel; and to ascertain which is the best project; and whereas the said citizens have hitherto neglected to notice our said decree; and whereas we are determined our authority shall be fully respected; now, therefore, we do hereby command the arrest by the army of both the Boards of City Fathers if they persist in neglecting our decrees.”
This was distinct among his various decrees, which usually involved calling for the use of the word “Frisco” to be considered a misdemeanor, in that this one stuck. The tube was forward thinking and mad in equal measure. Movements to rename the Bay Bridge the “Emperor Norton Bridge” still persist today, and the transbay tube is a reality.
I take the train to get to work. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), runs from Oakland, where I live, across the bay to San Francisco through the tube. Built in the 1960s, the tube was a joint operation between the Army and Navy, designed by Major General George Washington Goethals, who designed the Panama Canal. It was assembled primarily on land and then towed out to the middle of the bay, where sections of the pipe were sunk to the bottom like sedated whales. Waiting scuba divers welded the sections together a piece at a time, then reinforced the tube by building up sand and sediment from the bottom of the bay around it.
Every time I am on the train and the train is going through the tube, I am at the bottom of the ocean on my way to work, an impossible beautiful thing made possible by a probably insane and beloved local, some Pentagon engineering, and scuba diving welders who were paid to melt pieces of metal together.
You can make trains faster, you can make them wireless, you can make them sleek, but the experience and the aesthetic sensibility of the train is a constant. It’s a car that runs on a track, goes along the groove in the same route, on a set schedule, something you can set your watch by. It’s perfect.
THREE FOR A DIME
There is a new book of photography, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, compiled by Maxine Payne, a photographer from Arkansas, which is packaged together handsomely with the single-disc regional anthology, Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers: Arkansas at 78 RPM, put out by Dust-to-Digital, the singular Atlanta-based purveyors of archival esoteria, beautiful weirdness, and various forgotten-abouts.
It’s an object and a project that forces you to pay attention and rewards sustained engagement. It’s also maybe the weirdest thing you could possibly bring on the train, reading conspicuously, where I’ve listened to these recordings on headphones and absorbed the book over the past several weeks.
This book is, in some ways, the least convenient object you could imagine: a hardback book of high-quality photoplate prints, about an inch by two inches in size, surrounded by an ocean of white space. Included are the photographs taken by the Massengill family between 1934 and 1945 in their photobooth, which they pulled in a trailer while traveling around the state taking pictures. This was the depression, and work was scarce in rural Arkansas, so Mary Massengill, after seeing a photobooth operated in a general store, decided to invest in some lenses, sold off a couple dozen pullets to cover the cost, learned to color on the prints, and taught her family to start selling photos, three for a dime. The pictures in the book represent a selection of the family’s personal collection.
Inventors, entrepreneurs, hustlers, artists, Imperial Majesties of the First Water, the Massengills undertook a uniquely mad American project, like Ozark Merry Pranksters thirty years before the age of acid. They were capable, hardy people. Payne writes in her introduction, “With no formal training they figured out how to build portable studios and homes, how to construct a camera, how to light and pose the subject, and how to make prints so that the client could purchase their image very quickly….They would find a town that they thought would present them with customers, seek out electricity, put up their advertisement, and begin their task: sleeping in their workplace, with pungent chemicals and no bathroom.”
The result of this great project is faces. Portraits that range in tone from stark to casual, hilarious to creepy. In one, a woman swings a baby into the frame, smearing its face into a ghost. In one, some grizzler with a dirty shirt and a goose-egg in the middle of his forehead—bar fight? construction site?—tries his best to hide a smile. A makebelieve outlaw in a fedora points his sixgun at the camera, three androgynous children in Coke-bottle glasses grimace, Lance Massengill mugs.
Payne, who’s own family grew up friendly with the Massengills, members of whom are shown throughout the book, has built a birth-to-death arc into the organization of the book, starting with photos of babies, moving into photos of children, then adults, then the elderly. The sudden splashes of color in some of the photographs give them dreamlike tints, a just-offness that’s difficult to shake.
For the Massengills, this life was day-to-day. This was work, a slog. Toward the back of the volume, the diary of the Massengill’s oldest son and wife, the primary photographers, is reproduced in clipped fragments, whole years passing in single-sentence missives mostly concerned with finances, the weather, what inconvenience the day contained—no explanation, context, or elaboration given. The only record of April 12, 1939, for example, reads: “We took a lady to Searcy to have an exray made of her foot.” In his short account at the end of the book, Lance Massengill, who’s featured prominently throughout, is more concerned with getting on record why he wasn’t enlisted in the army during all of this—he broke his foot when he fell off an I-beam, built his own steel brace to keep working.
I’m reminded of Greil Marcus’s description of proto-blues singer Frank Hutchison’s Midwesterness of tone: “What you hear is prairie-flat and Babbitt-plain … a tired, so-what, whatever, never-mind refusal to wait around for the punch line to the joke everyone calls life combined with a willingness to wait around forever in the vague hope the joke might be on someone else.”
What we have here is a record of that wait.
Corn Dodgers and Hoss Hair Pullers: Arkansas at 78 RPM doesn’t require the photographs, but it does work to enhance them, making an immersive environment to lose yourself in for a couple hours. For Dust-to-Digital, an archival label with an impeccable track record of taste (and the Grammies to back it up), it’s another in a long line of essential projects on which to drop coin.
This anthology collects recordings from the golden age of documentation in what was then and still is called “hillbilly” or “old-time” music, and some of these artists never recorded more than a few sides for the Okeh label, or Vocalion, or Victor. It’s named after two too-good-to-be-true groups: Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and George Edgin’s Corn Dodgers, who contribute a few sides each.
Embracing the possibilities of high-quality digital transfers, and slowly working through the Everest of recorded music throughout history that has never been digitized, here as elsewhere Dust-to-Digital presents pristine remasterings of 78 RPM records, mostly taken from the vast collections of Joe Bussard and Frank Mare. The folks at Dust-to-Digital push back quietly against a music culture currently hijacked by a Swedish tech-exec by creating objects that require your patience, your attention, and your time. Not to mention they rescue a unique strain in the blueprint of American music from complete obscurity.
Standouts: Fiddlin’ Bob Larkin’s supremely weird fiddle/piano duet “The Higher Up The Monkey Climbs,” a half-stoned, possibly-filthy dance song croaked by Larkin, a singer who sounds like he’s having more fun than you are. Here, and on “Silver Nail,” his accompanist son has hammers for hands, plays the piano like rock. In a good way. Essential and uncomfortable to 21st century ears are James Weldon Johnson and Bob Cole’s minstrel-era compositions “Turnip Greens” and “My Castle on the Nile” recorded by The Wonder State Harmonists, as well as “Just Give Me the Leavings,” recorded by the Hoss Hair Pullers.
Really, all the Hoss Hair Pullers stuff is great: “Fort Smith Breakdown” features a master class in fleet-footed flatpicking bass runs from Henry Tucker on guitar. Meanwhile, Luke Hignight’s dips in and out of the divebombing double fiddles, playing frailed banjo and harmonica like a angelfish among fighter jets.
Strange instrument combos abound. On “Drunkard’s Hecups,” the Reaves White County Ramblers bang out a weird lumbering march on reed organ and a fiddle bowed by one member of the band and drummed on by another with sticks, possibly the first time this stage-trick was recorded. The Arkansas Barefoot Boys do an almost seasick doubling-up of harmonica and fiddle on “The Eighth of January” that cracks up in all the right ways— it’s what I always wanted Animal Collective to sound like. And the Corn Dodgers whimsical “My Ozark Mountain Home” is an all-time earworm. The whole collection is something to listen to at once, to sit with and digest, front to back. It requires no skipping.
I’m not saying this book and these songs are great because Dust-to-Digital preserves the pristine or defends the immaculate, that the music of Reaves White County Ramblers and tiny reproduction color plates of a baby drinking soda pop are aesthetically striking merely because they are old, or because they are obscure, or that digital culture is dead (for an articulate distillation of this perspective, however, I very much recommend Joe Bussard’s excellent Country Classics radio program, an hour of knockout pre-50s country tunes and general crankery from the dude with the largest collection of 78s in the world, also available as a free podcast, underwritten by Dust-to-Digital). No, what matters is that the material is good—grabs-you-by-the-throat good—and that it forces you to pay attention. What matters is the Zen-like precision in the trance inducing “Robinson County,” (a county that exists nowhere in the Union, much less Arkansas, by the way) recorded by the mysterious duo L.O. Birkhead and R.M. Lane, whose very identities are speculated at by the great country historian Tony Russell in the compulsively readable liner notes.
Dust-to-Digital doesn’t pimp fetish objects, they create things of the highest integrity, things that force you to reckon with them. They make the researched documentary into art, and archive this fine material in the process—more than any app can claim. The mission statement of Spotify is typical of Bay Area tech culture—to “let everyone in the world hear everything recorded.” This is something carried out by hijacking the work of others, eliminating the object from the equation, colonizing the creative act, and ignoring the curatorial art of archive—an art the folks at Dust-to-Digital have perfected. Give them your money.