^ from Greta Pratt’s Nineteen Lincolns, 2005 ^
Before the New Weird America was the Old Weird America.
An art show that circulated the U.S. in 2009 (and landed in Seattle at the Frye Art Museum) called The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, takes its primary title from music/culture writer Greil Marcus. In 1997, Marcus released a book, Invisible Republic, exploring the influence that recordings like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music had on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes; the book was re-released a few years later as The Old, Weird America. Harry Smith, John Cohen, and Alan Lomax, among others, can be credited with crucial roles in preserving recordings of folk, blues and gospel music before the generation that carried it in their bones passed away. These compiled tracks, in which atmospheric on-site recordings were sometimes captured in kitchens or on front porches, give us a misted peek into an America that is and was truly weird.
To listen to these tapes is to be transported into an earthy and secret place—to go under the spell of the country’s collective ghosts. Chairs creak, winds blow, babies whine, as voices wail, bellow and croon songs from older times, mother countries and bloody histories. The picture of America painted by these voices is much more colorful and eerie than the tidy rendition that one might read in a textbook.
In this age, we are nothing if not skeptics of tidy histories, yet to re-frame the past is difficult. Any retelling must borrow from standards of storytelling, or riff on the accepted versions of the past that we have in common, especially when the accepted versions have promoted questionable conclusions or notable exclusions.
The artists compiled in The Old, Weird America exhibit do just that. Pieces like Dario Robleto’s science-classroom classification drawers (Shaker Apothecary  shown below) and Sam Durant’s remixed museum dioramas (Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching ) glory in educational reductionism: the desire to distill complex narratives into clean pictures with captions (on plaques for more authoritative effect).
Greta Pratt’s sincere Abraham Lincoln impersonators (one contemplative Lincoln shown above) are moving in their desire to capture a fabled personality on which we hang endless ideals of civic bravery. Eric Beltz’s both irreverent and astoundingly beautiful graphite drawings of the Founders of America spin off of the same type of clichés with a dour backward glance. Greil Marcus has also warned that “…it is a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths.” Looking at the work of these mostly thirty-and forty-somethings, it seems that we are still happy to paddle around in the wily wilderness of our shared and unfathomably complex past.
Listen to bits of old songs:
Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
There is no Eye (Smithsonian Folkways)
^Dario Robleto, “Shaker Apothecary” (with “A Rosary for Rhythm” and “Salvation Cocktails”), 2007. Pine, hand-ground vinyl 45 rpm dance-craze records, various medicinal botanicals, carved bone calcium, typeset ^
Gala Bent is a mother-artist-teacher living in Seattle who enjoys, among other things, this thought: between thesis and antithesis arcs the ever-loving synthesis.