Culture Rover

#176 - Echolocation #8: The Secret Life of Cotton-Eyed Joe

Michelle Shocked's song, "Prodigal Daughter," from her 1992 album Arkansas Traveler, brilliantly reimagines the old fiddle tune "Cotton-Eyed Joe" as a song about a doctor who performs abortions.

Had it not been for the Cotton-Eyed Joe
I'd a-been a married a long time ago

As with many of the songs on this album, which I would argue is the best Americana folk music record this side of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, Shocked pulled new ideas out of the bottomless well of old tunes.

The album didn't care a hoot about authenticity, save for the authenticity of the polyglot: with all its big mess of ugly thievery, beloved borrowing, honest confession, and striking originality intact.

Shocked mixed old songs with new, stories about speeding on her motorcycle along the canyons of LA ("Come a Long Way") to sly little sexy songs about overthrowing the corporate jam industry by making preserves the way mama used to ("Strawberry Jam").

Old fiddle tunes took on new meanings of resistance. It seemed precisely right: the rebellions were buried in those old songs all along. And new songs seemed to emerge from a misty landscape in which modern-day outlaw-lesbians crossed paths with old Civil War vets, black hobo itinerants, and country-bumpkin farmers who played the fool to outwit city slickers.

All in all, Shocked brought to the surface the democratic yearnings, subversive yelps of individuality, sad tales of defeat, and utopian longings for community in the best of American music.

The depth and breakthroughs of Arkansas Traveler suggest that Shocked should be right alongside Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as one of America's contemporary star-power folk-music guardians.

You wonder if it's her gender and her more radical politics that keep her marginalized in the current celebrity American folk music lineage.

8 September 2007

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