Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Under the rubric of General Research, I took a couple of weekend afternoons to reread Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I haven't poked my nose into for quite a few years. (I say, Neddie, is that at all relevant to the Origins of Bluegrass? You bet your ass it is, Chuck-o!) I'd forgotten completely what an asshole Tom Sawyer proves to be, and certain passages -- particularly the ecstatic description of river-raft life on the lam in Chapter XIX -- misted me up a little. The ending's a little rushed, I think.

My edition was edited by Henry Nash Smith, whose Introduction is worth reading. In his insightful curating, he makes this fascinating point about Victorian language:
Just as effective as the individualizing of the characters by their speech is Mark Twain's device of establishing a common diction and rhetoric for all characters the moment they try to claim for themselves a false pathos...or an undeserved moral authority.... Different as the characters are in their natural selves, when they fall into pretense they all sound alike because they all begin to speak in a burlesque of the exalted rhetoric of the official culture. This "high" language might be called the "alas!" or the "soul-butter" mode of speech.
(The term "soul-butter" is Huck's own invention, which he uses after watching a transparently phony speech by the Dauphin, and the watching crowd strikes up "the doxolojer": "Music is a good thing; and after all that soul-butter and hogwash, I never see it freshen up things so, and sound so honest and bully.")

We don't do "soul-butter" much anymore -- and probably rightly so. If asked to deliver, say, a eulogy, I would shoot for tasteful, direct language rather than hifalutin phony poetry -- for precisely the reason Smith points out: We're trained (not least of all by Mark Twain himself) to view that "Alas!" school of rhetoric as a disguise for pretense and dissembling. The writers of Deadwood understood this brilliantly; the chief source of soul-butter in that cast of characters was the loathsome, sticky E. B. Farnum, who never spoke any other way.

Of course, there's good soul-butter and bad. The Gettysburg Address, I think we'd all agree, is very good soul-butter indeed, an application of "exalted rhetoric of the official culture" put to good use. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Twain's hysterically funny poem, attributed to the young, departed Emmeline Grangerford, "Ode to Stephen Dowlding Bots, Dec'd," ("Then list with tearful eye/Whilst I his fate do tell/His soul did from this cold world fly/By falling down a well") would occupy the opposite extreme. The poem on the obverse of John Mobberly's gravestone? Quite awful Victorian soul-butter.

Here's one of the reasons why Huck Finn is relevant to the Origins of Bluegrass: Quite a few of the sentimental Tin Pan Alley songs that formed much of the early repertiore were lyrically quite soul-butter-intensive: Think of "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake":
I heard the screams of our little girl far away
Hurry daddy there's an awful dreadful snake
I ran as fast as I could though the dark and dreary woods
But I reached our darling girl too late

Oh, I began to sigh, I knew that soon she'd have to die
For the snake was warning me close by
I held her close to my face she said Daddy kill that snake
It's getting dark, tell Mommy goodbye
Mmm, pour that melted soul-butter over my popcorn, an' throw in some salt! I'm here for the duration!


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Compare that to the stark, frightening desperation that Gordon Gano captured in the Violent Femmes Country Death Song:

I led her to a hole, a deep black well.
I said make a wish, make sure and not tell
Close your eyes dear, and count to seven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.

I gave her a push, I gave her a shove.
I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love.
I threw my child into a bottomless pit.
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit.
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit.

Chills me ever since I first heard it, just before they released their second album. Hold the soul-butter, please.

Gather round boys to this tale that I tell.
You wanna know how to take a short trip to hell?
Its guaranteed to get your own place in hell.
Just take your lovely daughter and push her in the well.
Take your lovely daughter and throw her in the well.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

sorry. screwed up the tags.

dwgs said...

I need to go back and re-read Huckleberry Finn with adult eyes.
Country Death Song has long been a favourite of mine, I loves me some Femmes.
Neddie, have you heard of these guys?
Pretty fun stuff.

Neddie said...

Laws, that's some Murder Ballad... Pretty direct language, ain't it...

Once, I was asked by R. Stevie Moore to participate in a strange recording project: He wanted to set his answering machine messages to music. He asked me to call with something, leave it on his machine.

Earlier I'd had the idea to do a simple little Doc Watson song, "You Get a Line and I'll get a Pole," but convert it, by sheer force of will, into a Heavy Metal Murder Ballad. The lyric couldn't be simpler:

You get a line and I'll get a pole, honey
You get a line and I'll get a pole, babe
You get a line and I'll get a pole,
And we'll head on down to the fishing hole
Honey, baby mine.

That could be a creepy tune, right? A-an' what are we gonna do at the fishing hole, my love? Heh-heh... You'll see... Honey.

So I rung up Stevie, got his machine, and, in my best quiet creepy child-molester voice, started in on the lyric.

I did four more iterations of that verse, each getting progressively more hysterical, until the last verse, when I was screaming it. (I was wandering around the orchard while I did this, checking fruits. I must have been a sight.)

Stevie never got back to me on that one. Hmmm.

Neddie said...


Dig the Chocolate Drops! That's great stuff!

I'm finding that the farther back I dig, the less and less difference there is between rural white and rural black music. Ralph Peer has a lot to answer for, separating the two markets into Race and Hillybilly genres back in that 1923. It's bullshit, racist distinction. I will say Angry Things.

Anonymous said...

Isn't "Soul Butter" an album by Booker T and the MGs? If it's not, it should be.

Larry Jones said...

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both talk soul butter in all their speeches. So, not always good, not always bad.

Neddie said...

Larry: This started out as a post on Barack Obama's soul-butter. I'd detected it in Obama's oratory - in a good way -- especially in his victory speech in Iowa. The post, shall we say, went elsewhere. I chickened out. The Martin Luther King thing intimidated me.

But I do detect the best of soul-butter rhetoric in Obama's speechifying. The cat inspires the hell out of me.

Will Divide said...

Here we dig the Chocolate Drops a lot, saw them a couple weeks ago in fact. Great show.

For my $$ no one does "Dreadful Snake" better 'n Freakwater on Dancing Underwater.

And as for what Twain thought of Sawyer, this is from chapter three:

Tom was General of one of these armies, Joe Harper (a bosom friend) General of the other. These two great commanders did not condescend to fight in person -- that being better suited to the still smaller fry -- but sat together on an eminence and conducted the field operations by orders delivered through aides-de-camp. Tom's army won a great victory, after a long and hard-fought battle. Then the dead were counted, prisoners exchanged, the terms of the next disagreement agreed upon, and the day for the necessary battle appointed; after which the armies fell into line and marched away, and Tom turned homeward alone.

Astute readers in the immediate wake of the Civil War would have known immediately from this what Tom would have been like as a grownup.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Have you listened to Jon Langford's Executioner's Last Songs project?

He started it as an anti-death penalty benefit, to "reclaim and consign to History these songs of Murder and Death" and he paired up all kinds of performers with old country and blues and bluegrass songs with death in 'em. (except for a version of 999's "Homicide")

I think that Freakwater song is on there, and Neko Case, and Sally Timms, and Johnny Dowd, and Steve Earle, and Dave Alvin, and Alejandro Escovedo, and Mark eitzel and the Sundowners..... whew.

dwgs said...

Damn, I love this place. Freakwater, The Mekons, Steve Earle...
Also the Undercover Black Man blog that I linked to for the Chocolate Drops is a consistently good read and has regularly pointed me in the direction of some fine music.

Julian Ruck said...

My band's name is Soul Butter.
We came up with it one afternoon...THEN looked it up.
Though I read Huck Finn as a kid, I certainly didn't recall that passage.
In our group of friends, 'butter' is often used to describe really-cool things..."that was butter"..."that music melted my butter"...etc...
The 'Soul' was our add-on...something blue-collar, something groovy. Anyway...I just couldn't resist posting.
I find it interesting how word-phrases...even independently developed, still have a SENSE about them...is it the phonetics? or the entymology? Does a fish believe in water?

here's a link: