Culture Rover

#150 - Echolocation #7: Blues Reused

"This is an old song / These are old blues / And this is not my tune / But it's mine to use" - Joanna Newsom, "Sadie"

Harp plucked, voice careening around "like Lucille Ball reciting Edmund Spenser" (Sasha Frere-Jones), Joanna Newsom sings of borrowed music in the central song on 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Newsom moves between tentative wonder and determined focus in the song, giving advice to Sadie, becoming Sadie, receiving wisdom from Sadie. Is this Little Sadie, the old folk ballad wife back from the dead?

Newsom's song is about loss, but something is gained in it. "You do lose what you don't hold," she sings, but hold on she does. At the center of the freak-folk New Old Weird America fad, Newsom's song reminds us of the ways in which young musicians are constructing new archives out of the past. Old songs and blues, not their tunes, are theirs to use anyway.

It's an improper and impure process -- what Robert Cantwell calls the disreputable practice of folklore. Inauthenticity has its day. At strange angles, askance, beauty arises from misapplications that seem, amazingly, just right.

New canons emerge from the hellish, molten mess, forged in the darkened corners of the pop music factory, while the better angel of our nature strums a harp.

"I have not forgot," Newsom sings, twisting her words toward a new stitch in time.

2 May 2007

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