Letter from Our Southern Editor
January 3, 2013 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”
May 20, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
A time comes when it’s healthful to put aside obscurantism and turn to bedrock, if only briefly. And while I flatter myself in thinking you know me as a man not prone to get overly excited about digital-remastering projects, nevertheless there are instances in which the beauty of the original song lay precisely in a primary attempt to expose its elements, and in these cases the additional stripping away of hiss and other shit can be revelatory, or in this instance (Best Ever: Buddy Holly, Techniche 2009), transformative.
That plane crash was a Hindenburg of pop. It’s taken me into my midthirties to mentally recover the true damage of it from Don McLean’s rhymes. Ever really listen to “La Bamba”? You’ve probably unconsciously sold yourself on the idea that the Los Lobos version is slightly superior. Not so! It's not the guitar, either, but the voice. When angels sing rock for fun they sound like Ritchie Valens. Did you know it’s Carol Kaye playing rhythm guitar there? Did you know Valens was seventeen when he died, that “La Bamba” hadn’t even been released yet? Snowy field in northern Iowa, flames.
If you listen to the live versions of "La Bamba," Valens played it basically like a sped-up Mexican folk song. Only in the studio did the ecstatic thing happen--at the point of intersection. I read somewhere that Valens didn't even like it.
On “Not Fade Away,” Jerry Allison plays a cardboard box (he’d ripped the idea from Buddy Knox’s lyrically creepy “Party Doll”). The beat is cartoonishly African. If you want to hear where it came from, listen to the song I hope to keep if the people in charge of the survival pod say you can keep only one, Charles Barnett’s “Run to My Jesus for Refuge.” Barnett was a Georgia man in his nineties. Alan Lomax met him at the end of a sand lane near the Sea Islands, right around the time Buddy Holly was making his song. Lomak asked, “Know Any Tunes?”. Barnett flipped a washtub over and started beating on it with two sticks, playing some of the most tenth-dimensional counterpoint you’ve ever heard, with galloping runs that suddenly freeze into cosmic pauses. “Mary, she wore a golden chain, / Every link was Jesus’ name. / I’m gonna run to my Jesus for refuge.” Supposedly Barnett could still jump into the air and click his heels together, at ninety-he-didn’t-even-know-what.
October 18, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Five years ago GQ assigned me to write about Axl Rose, who was mounting a “final comeback” with his Chinese Democracy, release of which had already been postponed by more than a decade. The album title was meant as a punch line. Q: When will Guns N’ Roses come out with something new? A: When there’s democracy in China. That stage in the singer’s career turned out to be neither a comeback (few people liked the record, and nobody played it much) nor final—a minute ago I ran his name through Google News and found he’s hard at work being Axl, showing up hours late to shows, getting pelted with bottles, making bizarre requests on tour riders (black napkins, Grolsch beer, honey in “bear-shaped tubes”).
The story was, by turns, fun and frustrating to report. I followed the band around Europe for a while, feeding cigarettes to the band members’ model girlfriends and failing to secure face time with “Ax.” His manager back then was a real specimen. Before one show, in Spain, I sat at a coffee table with this person, struggling to explain how it might help justify the seven thousand words we were about to expend on the band if the front man would speak to me for a few seconds. I think at one point I actually said, “Give me thirty seconds.” Axl had by then become, as he remains, sealed off from the press to an almost Michael Jackson level. The manager kept pausing to answer cellphone calls from Elton John. “Well, that’s because they don't know Tea for the Tillerman,” he said into the phone at one point, referring to the classic Cat Stevens record. What were he and Sir Elton talking about? I still wonder sometimes. He told me that, if we would agree to put Axl on the cover, “maybe we could talk about an interview.” I couldn't figure out how to say, in any non-offensive way, that GQ covers are typically reserved for extremely conventionally good-looking people in the midst of a career peak, such as Axl once was but hadn't been in a very long time. I let it drop. Axl broke with the manager soon thereafter, passive-aggressively blaming him in an “Open Letter to Fans” for the failure of Chinese Democracy. Thinking back, I feel sympathy with the manager. What I read as superciliousness was probably professional trauma. He was the devil’s own PR man.
The most memorable trip I made in connection with Axl was to Lafayette, Indiana, where he grew up. I drove there hoping to track down his oldest childhood friend, a man named Dana, who’d never been interviewed. Dana turned out not surprisingly to be a very reclusive person, and although he did eventually meet with me, it took several days to coax him out. I spent them inventing little research projects. I visited the public library and found old yearbook pictures of Axl. I photographed the church where he sang in the choir. And lastly, on the morning of the day when Dana finally called me back, I went to the local police station. Did they have any records on Axl? No, they didn’t think so. Really? That seemed impossible. Would they mind checking under his many Indiana names? William Bruce Rose Jr.? William Bruce Bailey? Bill Bailey? W. Rose? A friendly lady officer agreed to help me out. Read More »
June 18, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
First you tell us—in what begins to sound like a rage-filled howl against the light—that there is “no such word as snuck.” Then you send us a link to an Internet site, where we learn that snuck “has reached the point where it is a virtual rival of sneaked in many parts of the English-speaking world.” With enemies like that, who needs friends?
You instruct us to look at the OED, yet when we do, we find not only a snuck entry there (“chiefly U.S. pa. tense and pple. of sneak v.”), but also dozens of usage citations, going back to the nineteenth century, many of which are taken from such known language slouches as Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner . . .
Speaking of Faulkner, the coincidence of our being crackers is not, as you imply, irrelevant in this case. The very first appearances of snuck are almost exclusively Southern, and opposition to it has always been inseparable from the idea that it sounds country, or vulgar, or demotic.
That's probably why the dear “ass-people” at your high school taught you never to say snuck. They wanted the best for you, and didn't want your college professors making fun of you in class. That's only proper. High school is the time and place for rigid prescriptivism of the kind you're trying to put over on us. Later on, though, you put away high-school things. You wake up to the idea that English is an ocean, full of words that live, change, and die, and that your task is not to fix them in place but to master their flow, as best a person can.
A story I heard during the course of my own education changed my mind forever on this subject. When William Tyndale was doing his translation of the New Testament in the sixteenth century—the one that got him killed—there was a certain ancient word for which he lacked an English equivalent. His solution was to mash together a French word, beauty, and an old Saxon one, full. That's how we got beautiful. By your logic, we should stop using it, since, after all, it wasn't a word. Nothing is, until it is.
Snuck is a beautiful, almost onomatopoeic word. We've asked you for a good reason not to use it. In return you've given us the opinions of a long-ago ass-person (enjoyable term in itself—your coinage?). That person has been oppressing you. Set yourself free.
Yours in the cause,
June 17, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
I'm told a publication calling itself The Awl has blogged about our use of snuck for sneaked, calling out the whole Paris Review masthead for this transgression of English.
Transgression against English, they undoubtedly mean. If English had been transgressed by us, we would have stepped across it and begun writing in a foreign language. However solid an ambition that remains, no one will accuse us of it here. I suppose there's no pausing to get basic prepositions correct when you're on your way to obsessing over arcane questions of the irregular preterit. But let's not be pedantic.
Actually, let's be pedantic as hell. It ought to go against any writer's grain when people try to pass off schoolmarmish grammarianism as a concern for style. Style is about getting the maximum effect out of words, eliminating unwanted ambiguities, and writing in such a way that readers see things better—in short, it's about meaning. Grammarianism, which is to say, an out-of-control prescriptivism, is about doing things the right way, or more often, about giving others grief for not having done so.
I'm not an antiprescriptivist. Trying to keep your mother tongue honest is noble and even necessary. But a person needs to be objecting to a word on some grounds—that it's inexact or obscure, that it's confusing or unbeautiful. What is The Awl's problem with snuck? As far as one can tell, somebody told them at some point that it was preferable to use sneaked. Why, though? We've been saying and writing snuck for at least a hundred and twenty-five years now, in high and low contexts. Everybody knows exactly what it means. Indeed, a big-deal British linguist has theorized that the reason snuck emerged as a form to begin with is that it sounds more like what it says. It's shorter, faster, more final—it's sneakier. To my ear, sneaked has lost the war, and even smells a bit of the lamp.
Admittedly, I come from a place where people still say y'uns (oldest surviving usage of ye, according to some scholars), which may disqualify me from pronouncing on such matters.
I wish The Awl the joy of its style sheet, and strongly urge the excellent Mr. Cox and the rest of you to stick to your guns.
June 14, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
It’s strange that, right as you confer on me the undeserved (but I hope not wasted) honor of Southern Editorship, this region would reclaim its hold on the American imagination. I refer to the underwater live feed of the oil leak. Are you watching it? Down here we do little else. I made these notes on the experience. They may not be appropriate for the new blog. You said on the phone, if I remember, that you wanted to cover “the intersection of culture and everyday life.” But the leak has simply overpowered culture, to the extent that anything happening in that department now assumes a ghoulish cast.You can feel the other millions of people watching, especially late at night, and at times there has even been a Lincoln’s Death Train quality to this thing, a sense of shared, and deliberately prolonged, mass shock.
On YouTube, collections have formed of people’s favorite moments from the feed, sequences they found beautiful, or ones that appear to support a theory they developed about something BP did and lied about.
When something odd occurs in the frame—when three orange sponge-looking objects float by, for example, or when a striped tube-shaped thing rises up at the left and vanishes into the oil—there’s this reflex to call out to the others, and verify that they’ve seen it.
One clip going around shows an eel that swims up to the plume and hangs out for a few seconds, like, What the . . .
It looks as if they’ve somehow beamed a Victorian-era smokestack to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s billowing brown ash.Read More »