August 25, 2016

DFW, FTW: Life In the Internet Age

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest. On that tour Wallace stopped ...

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest.

On that tour Wallace stopped by our old show, The Connection, and put forward a pitch: his America — better protected, educated, and entertained than ever — was entering a sad spiritual drift. And as a recovering addict, he hoped to help himself (and others) to grope toward inward peace amid the buzz of the coming 21st-century culture.

It’s now almost 20 years later. Is there a chance Wallace, who died in 2008, was right?

His masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest, what we took to be manic imagination now looks like prophesy: it was hung up on lethally good amusement long before screen addiction became a national anxiety and people dropped dead at their keyboards in Asian arcades. Wallace foresaw about the paralyzing strangeness of watching yourself in HD; now we have the selfie stick. He thought virtual-reality porn could destroy civilization as we know it — and now that’s available in prototype (the link is news, but still not safe for work!).

The president Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest’s near future? Johnny Gentle, a dried-up celebrity-turned-wall-building-germaphobe intent on shooting American waste into space. Gentle wins on “a surreal union of both Rush L.- and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes… an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” In other words, he’s Donald Trump.

So, as Trump steps in and Jon Stewart steps out of a long career of laughing ruefully at all the bad news — maybe much of what we’re going through is somewhere inside Wallace’s long body of work, a one-man epic of irony, sincerity, mania, depression, addiction and forbearance.

A.O. Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times, told us Wallace captured the new voices inside American heads better than anybody else:

He was writing in fairly early days of the Internet and in advance of a lot of the digital culture that we now tend to blame for our alienation and loneliness and melancholy… I think that that sadness, that melancholy, that sense of a disconnection, of a perpetual un-fulfillment is a condition of modern life that renews itself in every generation and in every new technological dispensation… He was a very precise mimic in a way of a certain style of consciousness that is still very much with us and has if anything, intensified as the artifice and the addictive power of television has been supplanted and trumped by the addictive power of all these other screens that we now have.

We were joined by novelist and critic Renata Adler, who mapped that melancholy onto the meta American story, not the media. Postwar triumphalism and “public happiness”  gave way to something more paranoid, desperate, and defeated.

Maria Bustillos,who writes about culture for The Awl and The New Yorker, ventured that the latest phase of web living has us almost “lethally selfish,” comfortable with markets and politics that ignore real-world strife.  But, Bustillos says the heady, town-hall spirit of early blogger time isn’t lost forever; she still sees “a humanity rising up” in the Internet and its young users.

And Paul Ford — writer, programmer, and public intellectual of the web — agreed with his pal Maria. Ford points to their own web friendship (and even to Tinder!) to say that there is life on and off the web:

It’s remarkable that you put Maria and me both on this program. We have been chatting ambiently for years. When she comes to New York City, we go out and get coffee, and she gives big, strong tremendous hugs! There is an emerging physicality and sense of literal human touch that I think actually the Internet enabled… I live in this building far out in Brooklyn and we’ve all moved in there with our kids, and half the people in there met online. There is more physicality. There are more people meeting up, more people finding spaces for each other as a result, at the ground level.

Podcast • August 25, 2015

Renata Adler on Sadness, Selfies, and Losing

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age. She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These ...

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age.

renata-2She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These days, her tart, tweet-ready epigrams are a hit with millennials and 30-somethings hooked on language and the wide world. We link her to dauntless, independent spirits like Joan Didion, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Julia Child. She’s a match also for Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal—all of them readers, stylists, and watchers open to surprise.

David Foster Wallace was a Renata Adler fan (who spoke of her as an influence, too). So, on the occasion of our hour about DFW and the air of personal and social sadness that lingers around him, we poured Renata a scotch and sat together for a wide-ranging conversation about American life. What’s been going on, we asked, with our nation’s mood and history since the Vietnam War? In the age of the selfie, how should we be telling our country’s story?

This Week's Show •

‘The Changing Same’: Race in America

Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the "immutable force" in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the world of jazz and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander? Patterson is optimistic.

As a scholar and a father, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has spent his career puzzling over the “immutable force” in American race relations. Is it the ongoing, grassroots cultural revolution we see and hear in the worlds of activism and hip-hop? Or the eternal racial gap — in health and wealth, in incomes and outcomes — documented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander?

Even in the wake of the Justice Department’s grim report on Ferguson, the Jamaican-born Patterson is an optimist.

The result of all that thinking is The Cultural Matrix, an anthology of essays about the complex world of scarcity and violence that black youths bear and bring to light in their unmatched “cultural capital” — rappers, artists, athletes and fashion plates who fill seats in American arenas and export a world-leading look and sound.

Patterson admits that our prisons are much too black considering who commits the crimes. Both inner-city neighborhoods and black suburbs are overpoliced. (The small city of Ferguson, for example, seems to run on a combination of racial bias and extractive economics. Its city manager stepped down on Wednesday.) And this week we were reminded that frat boys still veer into antebellum politics when they think no one is looking.

Patterson has crunched the numbers and says both sides of the racial divide have “20-percent problems.” Twenty percent of whites are hardcore racists. And twenty percent of African-Americans live lives “disconnected” from the values of the society at large — that means more crime and violence, drugs and weak family ties.

So this week we’re asking, in a wide-open way, just what — if anything — is to be done to reconcile and reengage two cultures after the revelations in Ferguson, to reclaim and enrich the gains made at Selma 50 years ago. To Orlando Patterson’s mind, we’re doing better than ever before.

Hip-Hop’s Case for Hip-Hop

The people who produce this culture are both alienated and deeply American. Hip-hop’s embrace of materialism is exactly what you would expect of American materialism. It comes from a people who are steeped in a desire for material things but are denied those things.

Jelani Cobb, historian and journalist

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We’re including a Spotify playlist to be thought of as hip-hop’s case for hip-hop. These songs are New York Times-approved: they’re recognizable as psalms, jeremiads, laments, and exaltations present in other kinds of music.

There’s very little of the wanton celebration of violence that Orlando Patterson finds (and maybe plays up) in the hip-hop canon. There’s materialism, set against

o maybe this is “respectable” music, in the bad sense of politics of respectability. But we know that it’s popular music, with mainstream acclaim, and it tells a forty-year story of musicians’ introspection.

Photo of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Credit: Terry Richardson.

Podcast • March 2, 2015

A Winter Journey with Ian Bostridge

The English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler ...

review-books-nonf_9_210239cThe English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler toward madness and death. Think of these 24 songs as the first and all-time concept album, written in 1827 by another of those Viennese geniuses in the footprints of Mozart and Beethoven.

These are songs conceived by a 30-year old genius who knows he dying — of syphilis, it is said. Winterreise has the rattle of death in it, like Schubert’s most-played posthumous Piano Sonata in B-flat, and long soaring melodies as well. The cycle has an unearthly ring all through it, the sound of the heavens looking back on natural life. Or so it has often seemed to me. Ian Bostridge sings these Schubert songs as a path that many moderns still find themselves following — Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman come quickly to mind. Ian Bostridge’s omnidirectional book of reflections on the songs chase down a host of implications along the way.

Franz SchubertThe short form on Schubert (1797 – 1828): he was a demigod of musical Vienna in Beethoven time, popular and prolific. Hundreds of songs and chamber pieces, 7 finished symphonies and 1 famously unfinished one. But it’s this set of 24 songs, finished on his death bed, aged 31, that seals his genius. It makes almost any list of the faultless master creations in any category of art—up there with Don Quixote, the Taj Mahal, Moby Dick, My Fair Lady — and Ian Bostridge gets to live inside those songs on stage year after year and now inside this irresistible manual: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.

Winter Journey is a punctuated series of cries from the heart of a desperate traveler—sometimes melting, sometimes burning, mostly frozen by snow and ice—hail storms in his heart and a bitter wilderness outside as he plunges toward his own black graveyard. You can feel the frenzy in Bostridge’s sometimes grainy tenor; the standard “Winterreise” in our time has been the majestic, perhaps more stoical procession of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who made it a baritone’s piece. Either way, the piano voice in these songs is as marvelous as the singers, it’s not just accompaniment. And maybe the most distinctive touch in Wintereisse is that each of the 24 links in this headlong adventure — the story possibilities, connections and digressions in art, history, life, love, science, German unification, anything — fan out in every direction. We’re taking up Ian Bostridge invitation to listen carefully and then digress with him.

March 13, 2014

Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?

Are we getting over 9.11? What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution? We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?
The Armor You Have
Pico Iyer: An Empire in Isolation

Mayor Bloomberg Visits Lower Manhattan Security Initiative With Police Chief Ray Kelly

Guest List

Here’s an awkward question that may be urgent: Are we getting over 9.11?  Will we ever? Do we want to?  Is it a scar by now, or a wound still bleeding? Is it a post-traumatic-stress disorder?  What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution?  After a monstrous attack on the American superpower, is there anything like those five stages of individual grief — some version of the famous Kubler-Ross steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?  We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?  Do we have a word for the anxiety that a War on Terror can feed on itself forever? A decade and a half out, are we a different country?

We’re imagining this as an ongoing series, with conversations and podcasts to be added as we go. Have you any suggestions for people we should speak with? Writers? Historians? Critics? Your next-door neighbor?

Reading List

Osama expected to die by violence, as he did.  Sadly, he probably died a satisfied man.  In addition to alienating Muslims and the West from each other, as was his aim, he achieved so many other transformations of the order he sought to overthrow… He catalyzed two wars.  He bears responsibility for the death of thousands in the West and hundreds of thousands in this region.  The unfunded financial burden of the conflicts he ignited has come close to bankrupting the United States.  Indirectly, it is upending the international monetary system.  It has produced recession in the West.  Osama will have been pleased.

This Week's Show • June 26, 2014

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into.
Sven Birkerts: Present at the Creation of "Infinite Jest"
The Infinite Boston Tour
D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace's Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” that “Fresh Killed” poultry sign in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm. Ave., Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour of one man’s battlefield, with re-enactments every day.

We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far.  IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks,  — and loneliness throughout.  One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it’s still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.”

Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.
Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns

September 24, 2013

Linda Ronstadt: The Best Singers and Songs

  When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, ...

 

When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…

Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible. 13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle. 12. Little Girl Blue, from Rodgers and Hart, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. 11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized. 10. What’s New? by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. This is the Linda Ronstadt version with Nelson Riddle. And then there’s Coltrane. 9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go. 8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. 7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls.  “Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice.  Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said. 6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.” 5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song. 4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.” 3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra. 2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.” 1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?”  “O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n’B and pop.  “And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”

Podcast • November 9, 2012

Yasser Jradi: for a “cultural revolution” in Tunisia

Yasser Jradi is a Tunisian calligrapher and musician best known for writing an anthem of the 2011 Revolution, Dima, Dima. He says it was the anaesthetic “bad culture” of Ben Ali’s police state that killed ...

Yasser Jradi is a Tunisian calligrapher and musician best known for writing an anthem of the 2011 Revolution, Dima, Dima. He says it was the anaesthetic “bad culture” of Ben Ali’s police state that killed the old regime — that, and 10 years of popular underground protest music, mostly from America: songs like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Pink Floyd’s Hey You, songs by Bob Dylan and Bob Marley that incited young people to revolt, or at least to “Do something! Stand up!” Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land moves him openly: “I have the feeling this is about Tunisia now, even if it is talking about ‘California and the New York islands.’ It is feeling about Tunisia now. I love this man Woody Guthrie.”

Jradi says: “it’s not yet time to say we made a revolution; we may have to wait 10 or 15 years.” But for sure he believes that it’s good art and music that will reconstruct the Tunisia he wants to see. Suddenly, as we spoke, two musical friends and bandsmen turned up — one with a three-string bass, another with iron clackers — and the living tradition of Tunisian music broke out in Yasser Jradi’s little shop in a cave of old Tunis’s Medina market. The sound, Jradi says, was compounded in the 17th Century by sub-Saharan Africans and Arab slavers, in the days when Tunis was a capital of the slave trade. It’s a mystical, trance music, “Tunisian reggae,” as Yasser Jradi hears and sings it, and it is known as “Stambeli.”

Tunisia in my Kitchen: Back in Boston, in the Spring of 2013, I finally have from the fine hand of Yasser Jeradi a daily look at the spirit of transition in North Africa.  The words are from Mahmoud Darwish's poem, "In Jerusalem."

Tunisia in my Kitchen: Back in Boston, in the Spring of 2013, I finally have from the fine hand of Yasser Jeradi a daily look at the spirit of transition in North Africa. The words are from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “In Jerusalem.”

Podcast • March 20, 2012

Jeanette Winterson: What it Takes, in Letters and Life

She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping ...

She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth — matte for everyday, and a pearlised set for ‘best.’

From the opening of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson is the real thing — on the page, in life’s rough and tumble, and in our quick forty-minute feast of gab. We’re in the Lenox Hotel in Boston, where Red Auerbach and his Boston Celtics used to live. But I’m pinching myself and thinking: this could be Charlotte Bronte I’m sitting with, or George Eliot. How long did it take her, I ask, to write that opening bit on her monster of an adoptive mum?

Perhaps it was 25 years’ work; I mean, you do get somewhere after all this time. I like to write short sentences and I like to make the language work hard. One of the things I wanted to do from the very beginning was to take the disciplines, the intensities, the density of poetry and to fuse that language with the stretch of narrative… You do get to something like a moment of grace by now, I suppose — when you’ve taken language apart so many times, the way boys take engines apart and put them together again. That’s always been my relationship to language. It’s something I understand as a place of delight for me… I do enjoy writing. It isn’t torture for me to be in my studio working. It’s a great pleasure…

It was Mrs. Winterson who impelled Jeanette to run away and make her home in a Mini when she was 16, but it was that same Bible-belting aphorist who left this unwanted step child her legacy of words.

My mother died when I was 30… It’s taken me another 20 years to reconcile myself to that place. But I have done so, and it feels a lot better and I’m very happy to have done it. With my biological mother — with Bio Ma, as I call her — I wouldn’t have had the education, and I wouldn’t have had the books, and I wouldn’t have had all the things I had to push against. That’s why I’m glad that I had my own crazy upbringing, however difficult, however painful. You know, a lot of people who’ve been adopted imagine that there will be some important reunion, and that they’ll find something that they can’t feel, because they imagine it’s in their DNA. DNA is so fashionable now. We think everything is about biology. I really don’t think it is…

A three-day exorcism in Mrs. Winterson’s church was the excruciating finale of the torture Jeanette fled. What’s fascinating in conversation is her ease nonetheless with words like “grace” and “faith” and “spirit,” and the respect that abides for the language of church and scripture and the human need that draws people to them. You don’t walk away, she is saying, from a childhood steeped in the Bible.

You can forcefully drag yourself away, and then people tend to become fundamentalist in the opposite direction. They become so vehement in their denials of any spiritual possibility that you wonder what it is they’re so nervous about. For me anyway it’s easy to sense and to feel at home in a spiritual dimension, in the world and in me. I have a lot of energy and a large energy, and it feels connected. I don’t feel solitary and isolated. I feel involved in something much bigger, but I do think that’s the creative force that pushes through. So I’m happy to take my truths wherever I can find them, and there’s plenty in the Bible. It’s a good book, and I wish the religious right would actually read the Bible. You know, then we might get somewhere. I mean, I don’t see Jesus giving tax breaks to big corporations. I see him hanging out with prostitutes and the poor and the dispossessed. Hold on: didn’t you read this bit? And I love that part in the Gospel where Jesus says: ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ That’s a profound comment. And if it’s within us, that’s where we ought to be looking. It means it’s not in the world of commerce and shopping and busyness. And it can’t be found in organized religion, because it’s in, and not out.

Then there’s the tart, refreshing Winterson voice on politics. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron made a state visit to the US a week before Jeanette Winterson’s book tour in America. I am venting my irritation with the neo-imperialist — or maybe eternally imperialist — British impulse that has insinuated itself into American chatter (think: Andrew Sullivan, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchens), grievously since George Bush enlisted Tony Blair in the Iraq War that only Blair might have headed off:

Unfortunately what you’re hearing is the broad consensus from England. Tony Blair is responsible single-handedly for the Iraq War, there’s no question of it. Having him as the Ambassador for Peace in the Middle East is like putting the mosquito in charge of malaria. He is really a terrible man, and I think that’s pretty much felt in the UK. But we can’t give up our imperialist ambitions. It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd. But they’re there. I just hope that this war-mongering won’t continue. I mean, I think it might. I’m sure we’re going to cause much more trouble in Afghanistan. I’m sure that there’s going to be enormous amounts of trouble with Iran next… Britain is a bit of a lost cause at the moment, because we have no money; it’s all been spent. All we’re doing is cutting the economy, putting in austerity measures. You know, it would suit us now to have a war, because wars allow people to be distracted from what’s happening in their own country… In all this global economic breakdown, nobody seems to be saying how much that war cost and how much these wars go on costing. We can’t afford welfare but we can afford endless amounts of war. And that seems to me completely wrong, but nobody will talk about it. I don’t know what happened to Christopher Hitchens at the end of his life. He started out as a radical. He ended up as a despot… This is the Messiah Complex that people seem to get. I mean, George Bush had it. Tony Blair had it. They believe somehow that it’s up to them, and that God’s telling them what to do. It’s deeply delusional and very frightening. And I wish that Richard Dawkins would address himself to that kind of megalomania instead of worrying about people who want to go to church at the weekend.

And finally, the fate of books in this Digital Age. I’m remembering a passage in Winterson’s Written on the Body, in which the nameless lover/narrator imagines “a Virtual life with a Virtual lover” and recoils. And this was 20 years ago. “For myself, unreconstructed as I am,” said Winterson’s protagonist, “I’d rather hold you in my arms and walk through the damp of a real English meadow in real English rain. I’d rather travel across the world to have you with me than lie at home dialing your telepresence.” Nowadays, Jeanette Winterson is a blogger who rejoices in the speed and range of the Web, and I am hoping she can make us love it.

I can’t make you love it, but I can make you use it for good, which is the best we can hope for. Of course I’d always rather have the real thing. Who wouldn’t? I don’t Skype my girlfriend when I’m on tour — which I suppose is the telepresence I was thinking of 20 years ago — because I hate it! It makes me feel lonely. It doesn’t make me feel connected. I’d rather know that I’ll see her in two weeks because I can live imaginatively in my head… However there are advantages. The Web is exciting, and it does allow for other possibilities. I hate Facebook because it makes me feel like I’m in a Soviet apartment block. But I like Twitter because I enjoy the formal constraints of the 140 characters to try and Tweet something interesting instead of something banal. But the thing is: this is our time. We’re living in it. And you can work to change it, but you also have to do your best within it. And I’ve got no time for the sort of cynicism and the handwringing that a lot of writers go in for, as Jonathan Franzen does. This is our time, and there are kids growing up who are digital natives and will know everything about this media. There’s no point telling them it’s rubbish and they shouldn’t be there. What we have to do is work with it.

Jeanette Winterson with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 19, 2012.

Podcast • March 15, 2011

Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff ...

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff on Me” in 1934. Then Woody Guthrie accompanying himself, Pete Seeger and others on “Bound to Lose,” playing a guitar with a label on it: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” And then there are the strangely uplifting choruses of prison work songs from the Angola Convict Sugar Plantation in Louisiana and the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi — songs like “Rosie,” which Lomax recorded in 1947 with prisoners, “C. B. and the Axe Gang.” As John Szwed writes in his vivid biography of the protean Lomax, “This was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery.”

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World in Szwed’s subtitle, was the son of a proper folklorist at the University of Texas. The old folklore compiled texts; the new would revel in the truth of sound that had body language in it, too. Together in the early Thirties, father John and his teenage apprentice had set out across the South with early Edison recording equipment on what John Lomax used to call a “hobo-ing” trip. What Alan ended up compiling was a sort of unofficial, non-commercial people’s soundtrack of the Great Depression. Homegrown songs of spirit seem in retrospect to be pouring out of the suffering soil wherever Alan Lomax turned. Makes you wonder: what is the music of the meltdown today, and where’s to find it?

John Szwed [Martha Rose photo]

Alan Lomax brought a roaring confidence to new fields opening up in the 30s. There was something of the great Edison in Lomax’s recording chops as the tech kept improving. He had something of John Hammond’s talent-spotting gift in the period when Hammond was signing Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band for Columbia Records. “He’s got an infallible ear for the un-commercial,” Hammond said dismissively. There was also something of Orson Welles in Lomax’s showmanship — maybe something of Elvis Presley in Lomax’s fantasies. Lomax was open to rock’n’roll, despite its commercialism, and he was soft on Elvis — not least, John Szwed remarks in our conversation, because Elvis did what Alan wanted to do: liberate the white man’s hips! Even as he coopted so much black musical style, Elvis was the herald of a great healing shift in racial cultures.

Alan Lomax grew up to be a walking trove of all the world’s musics — especially its songs. By the end he’d built “folksonomies” of song elements and delivery styles, a whole anthropology in which the ways people sing marked the main links and differences between the cultures of continents. John Szwed is talking about an ecstatic genius whom many friends found “oppressive” if only because of his certainty that nobody anywhere knew what he knew about songs. “But Lomax was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century,” Szwed writes, “a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”