Saturday, May 18, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Let’s start with the story of a t-shirt, one of my favorites, weathered black with two words in white, distressed, capital letters inscribed across the chest: “No Depression”.
Until a few weeks ago, when I wore the shirt, people routinely asked me what the words meant, and I always said, ‘It’s the name of a magazine,” which was the truth, but not the whole truth, as they say. There have always been other meanings buried within the phrase, but it would have be sort of obnoxious to answer a casual and mostly indifferent question about a t-shirt with an exegesis, the very definition of geek overkill.
Lately, no one asks what the words mean, and I don’t think it’s because they know. It’s because they think they can guess. The word “depression” is back in fashion, as in “Are we headed for another Great Depression?” A month ago, the word became current again, rising on the wings of an older meaning that had nothing to do with mental illness or psychotropic drugs, a meaning that sounds economic, but has taken on the force of fairy tale or myth.
Which is to say that these days, while the words on my t-shirt may be less mysterious, but they are potentially more unsettling. Let’s assume most people have never heard of the wonderful and groundbreaking music magazine No Depression. Before the collapse of Wall Street, putting ‘no’ in front of “depression” may have suggested an optimistic though vague message about life in general, something akin to ‘no bummers’ or ‘no bad vibes, please’. Now the words possess the quality of incantation, as in, “No Great Depression, please, god.”
When historians mull over the 1930’s, pondering whether or not an economic depression can happen again, as Niall Ferguson does in the current issue of Time magazine, they do so in the detached language of the sciences. That’s right and good, but doesn’t address the terror. When lay people like myself talk about depression in this sense, the term carries a hint of childhood nightmare, as if we’re wondering whether corpses can reanimate and eat the living. Can it ever happen again? Can the thing beneath the bed reach my head?
In his most recent blog post, featured on the new and improved No Depression website, editor and columnist Peter Blackstock has this to say. “Much was made of Bruce Springsteen landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously in 1975 when Born To Run was released. Does the following mean No Depression is halfway there?” The question refers to Niall Ferguson’s Time cover story, which features an iconic photograph of a 1930’s bread line, and the tag line, “No, this isn’t the Depression 2.0. How history can help us avoid it.”
Get it? “No” and “Depression” in the same sentence equals promotion of his magazine. Blackstock means the question as a joke, of course, and it’s funny, but it’s also a really interesting thought, a version of the t-shirt effect.
Another way of posing his question might be this (Apologies to Peter for putting words in his mouth). Isn’t it funny how a single event, like the collapse of the financial industry, can suddenly change the meaning of a word, and thereby reflect the transformation of the world? And isn’t it strange how a meaning dormant in a word, a usage almost forgotten, can abruptly become that word’s primary function again? Finally, isn’t it fascinating how some words appear to lie at the root of our entire experience of social and cultural life, never quite vanishing?
Depression seems to be one of them. Way back in 1936, when the Carter Family first recorded the song “No Depression in Heaven”, there could be no doubt about the central meaning of that noun, though the song itself traffics in multiple visions of reality, one to do with earthly economies, the other with heavenly ones. The song conveyed more than financial and divine mysteries. It caught the central mood of the time.
Then the meaning of depression changed; it eroded, melded, morphed. In the long era of prosperity that followed World War II, depression became more about psychology than the stock market crash, though the two have always been intimately linked. Freud and his followers dictated terms. In the 1980’s, when talking about the weather came back into vogue and the adjective “tropical” became a common linkage, the word savored of yet one more primal fear. As far as I can tell, depression never means anything good.
By the time the band Uncle Tupelo recorded its punk-inflected version of the Carter Family song in 1990, the actual Great Depression was a distant reference point in textbooks, one of those very bad things that could never happen again because governments had made better laws. The tune built a style and a sound around a worldview that had a social dimension, like a lot of other songs on that record—”Life Worth Living” and “Screen Door” come to mind—but the urgency of the music reached an audience that had little or no idea of the magnitude of the original event.
When the record came out, there was a recession, and if you had just graduated from college, it wasn’t easy to find a job, but the homeless population aside, there were no bread lines, no ten and eleven percent unemployment, no Hooverville tent camps in Washington DC, unless one counts Anacostia.
1990 was a rough downturn, but it wasn’t 1929 or 1932 or 1936, and soon enough, the doldrums gave way to the tech and real estate booms that landed us where we are now–a moment that may not be the Depression 2.0, as Time magazine glibly has it, but feels a lot scarier, a lot less manageable, than any other era in my adult life.
If the next few years turn out to be as bad or worse than the Great Depression, and let’s hope they don’t, we’ll find a new word for the experience, no doubt, and one day, years hence, when we’ve come out the other side, maybe another band and another pair of editors will be lucky enough to use the term as a cultural and social reference point rather than a description of the unimaginable. It’s easy to forget now that the sepia-toned Great Depression of the photographs once ruined millions.
On a day when the Dow dropped 700 points, it’s hard to be cheerful, but the resurrection of the magazine No Depression as a website is sweet relief, just like the song says.
The site is no longer merely a promotional vehicle for the magazine, but is coming into its own as a trove for content. I just read a Don McLeese review of the new Lucinda Williams record Little Honey and had my first violent disagreement–in my head—with an on-line critic. McLeese considers Lucinda’s last album West one of her best and basically applauds everything she’s done since Car Wheels on the grounds that she’s always taken chances. She has, but is that always a good thing?
Full disclosure: I consider the notion that an artist taking chances always pays off to be a bromide on par with “I’m glad to be an American, because at least I know I’m free.”
Too frequently, artists use the posture of “taking chances’ to make their least adventurous, least profound music. I haven’t heard the rest of the record yet, but “Real Love”, the first single off the new Lucinda, is easily her worst song in years, a lazy little throwaway that makes the argument for her decline far better than I could. The idea that Lucinda is involved in brave experimentation while making low-grade pop that she would once have reviled should be challenged and immediately by people who love her music.
But that’s why I love No Depression. It will be challenged soon enough. In the meantime, trusting McLeese to have some judgment in these matters, I’m going to take his word for it and go out and buy the new record. Maybe the single is an anomaly.
Back in the pages of the magazine, I also recommend Grant Alden’s column on the Cherryholmes song “This Is My Son,” a ghastly bit of gospel that I heard on Fresh Air. In the song, the singer-songwriter, Cia Cherryholmes, pretends to be a mother sending a son off to war and compares her plight to that of God sacrificing Jesus.
You-know-who wept! A lot of evangelical Christians seem to have lost their theological way in the mess of the Iraq War, and this song exemplifies the confusion between state violence and gospel mission. With his long years in the trenches of bluegrass, Alden spells out the objection well, but if any doubt remains, I would refer you to Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier”, as sung by Robison himself or the Dixie Chicks.
That song is ostensibly about Vietnam, but it’s bigger than that, a secular hymn about the young who die too soon in all wars. God isn’t mentioned, but if a person believes, does god really have to be? ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ doesn’t make an argument about politics. It merely paints a picture, but it’s hard to forget.
When I’m not listening to Bruce Robison, I’ll keep wearing my No Depression t-shirt, but not as a talisman. I don’t think it’s going to ward off hard times. Neither do I think it’s going to keep my mind from dark thoughts. But it’s comfortable and goes well with jeans and almost any sweater, and it was a gift and so didn’t cost me anything. That’s my mood these days. I’m hunkering down and counting the small blessings and hoping against hope that some of the good stuff of the last few decades, such as this magazine, survives.
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