Jibbs McAllister – Lost Master of the Zydeco Fiddle

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For much of the material in this essay I am indebted to online musicologist ‘Sean’, who also brought Jibbs McCallister to my attention.

In October 1972, 37 years to the day last week, a temporary worker brought in to the Yazoo offices to catalogue a job-lot of donated shellac sides failed to extinguish a cigarette correctly and, in what has now become known as the Great ’72 Barn Fire (although it was no barn but a lock-up in the West Village), an entire department of Yazoo’s archive was destroyed. It could have been worse, or so many have observed. Once the smoke cleared, almost all the destroyed records came from the section named ‘Problematic’. These were the scratched records, the poor performances by forgotten jug and hoss-tube artists, the discs without labels and, famously, a near-complete set of White Star shellacs by Jibbs McCallister. Rumours persist that this was no accident.

Jibbs who?

Exactly. McCallister is as forgotten today as he was notorious in his time. In the categorisation frenzy of the 60s folk revival Jibbs was most commonly referred to as a Zydeco fiddle player but even this apparently simple piece of information crumbles when examined. The reference originates from a taped interview with folklorist Stuart Palmer. Palmer asks Jibbs what style he plays and Jibbs, slurring, apparently replies ‘Zydeco fiddle’ but recent digital analysis has suggested he may have said ‘psycho fiddle’ or even ‘zygote feel’ although the latter theory has few adherents within professional studies (Greil Marcus excepted). Continue reading

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What happened

I posted this on October 2nd, in a rather distracted state. I may remove or edit it but will let it stand as it is for the time being.

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Just over two hours ago I was sitting on the terrace that overlooks the hundred-metre gorge of Ronda, eating supper with my beloved and her mother. We had been watching a family of wild dogs that seems to live amongst the cacti on a narrow ledge high on the cliff. A mother and perhaps eight pups, they troop in a line along ledges that are barely more than kerbs. We watched a wide-winged bird of prey circling above, spooking the swallows, or smugly gliding lower, frightening a giant flock of rock pigeons from their cliff face roost. We’ve noted the cycle of life, here, something one rarely notes in London. Now it’s October, clusters of starlings have begun to swerve back and forth across the gorge, between old and new Ronda. There are red-beaked crows that slide past in cool formation, dipping with the synchronicity of an aerial display.

The tourists, too, have their cycles. They flock in the morning across the bridge, as the first buses arrive, but lessen as the evening comes in. As we ate there were fewer, but still a steady stream, some stunned mid-wander by the vast, grey-scale mountains and the dizzying distance between the bridge and rocks and stream below. They crowd, lean over, take photos. One woman seemed, although it couldn’t be right, to be crouched atop the grille that curves outwards so that tourists can see straight down, arms out behind her like a diver. Then she jumped.

A short, high squeak, like someone leaping into a swimming pool that’s too cold, and then she was out of sight.

I’ve given a statement from the police station, over the phone to a woman who spoke English. Whilst waiting for my turn in the interview room I searched my tiny Spanish guide for the words to describe what I’d seen. I drew diagrams, with lines of sight and possible distances. They didn’t need them so I’ve brought them home, folded, to open by accident one day. My statement is useless, I saw nothing but a distant, nameless figure disappear. Now, it’s official.

Walking back, I met our landlord’s wife, who lives on the floor below. She had her three-month old baby with her, tiny, in a high-wheeled carriage. I helped her carry the child to her door then said good night.

It’s amazing how many clichés run through your head when you see something like that. I don’t know if I should write about this but, with her public death, this woman has sent little ripples through the lives of everyone who saw her jump. She wanted to be seen.

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Give me the glass, and therein will I read…

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while; how to frame and explain what seems a rather esoteric idea. It goes something like this…

If I had been born in the Netherlands during its Golden Age, if I had studied painting and produced work for the exploding population of middle-class merchants seeking work of less religious and more domestic themes, and if I had I been a genius, I could have painted something like Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing. I could never have painted Vermeer’s Wine Glass.

If I had been developing television series for the BBC in the 1980s – and had been hugely talented – I might have come up with something like the Singing Detective; I would not have been able to conceive Smiley’s People…

I glimpse in these first works, dim and incomplete, qualities that are deeply and personally felt, superior reproductions of my own semi-conscious preoccupations and sense-tones: I see aspects of myself expressed better than I could ever say them.

And this is not the same thing as admiration or enjoyment, or even quality. I stand stunned before the works of Proust, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Miles Davis, as acts of skill, as vast intellectual and emotional accomplishments, yet I do not encounter myself in their works, I am located outside the perimeter, gaping in. Passages of HP Lovecraft, on the other hand, echo to me the histrionics of my own prose, and sometimes even my gloomier suspicions about the world. It unnerves to identify more with the tormented Rhode Island racist than with, say, a genius such as Joyce.

We don’t choose the works in which we recognise ourselves (I say we, assuming that others may have the same eerie experience). A work resonates with private truth or it does not. In Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum – the film when I was a child, the book as an adult – I found what seemed the perfect ensign for how I imagined the best my fiction could aspire to, not because it was the best I’d ever read but because I sensed, radiating through it as a kind of palimpsest, qualities that felt intimately familiar. For the good and bad.

There are some geniuses that can produce both kinds of work: King Lear, for me, reads like my darkest, most pagan inner voice speaking direct, human truth. Julius Caesar, whilst magnificent, seems beamed from another thought-world entirely. Titian and Dylan also achieve this, I think.

These thoughts are instinctual and inconclusive; could we each amass a tribe of these avatars, on a separate shelf, and say ‘over there is the great work, but here is the work – good and bad – that explains me to myself’? And if you could do that, would you show anyone, or would you box them in the cellar?

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The naming of cats is a difficult matter…

Warning: this post contains dewy reminiscence and less-than-critical personal analysis

There is a window to the right of where I sit. Just below there, I can see a small sun terrace belonging to the neighbours on the floor below. But beyond that things fall away for another hundred metres into a gorge; two plateaus are linked by the Puente Nuevo, which leashes Ronda’s old town to the new. The old town – which perches opposite me across the gorge, is one of Spain’s oldest settlements. There are signs of habitation going back to 2,500BC. The architecture is a palimpsest of Moorish, Counter Reformation and modern tourism. Beyond the town the mountains, currently paled in a morning haze quite unlike the unfiltered all-day sunshine I had expected.

I’m not sure why I’ve included this information, except maybe to illustrate that I’m far from home, which may explain one of my current preoccupations.

We travelled here from Weeze airport near Düsseldorf, just across the border from the Netherlands. It was a quick flight but, coming after several weeks of sofa-surfing with friends and family, we caught the bus from Seville airport to the centre of town with a sense of newly-relaxed exhalation. I remember the moment precisely; we had passed through the rotating door of the budget hotel we were to occupy for the night before moving on to Ronda and, smiling at the dried flowers and twigs – giant pot pourri – sealed into the glass between the compartments of the door, I felt a tingle of excitement that all had gone well and soon I would be somewhere in the town, drinking a beer with my beloved and marvelling at the tiny, inconsequential differences between nations that still, to my untravelled eyes, seem so telling, alien and thrilling. Continue reading

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The Beachcomber

I had forgotten about the beachcomber. I had forgotten about his long coat dragging through damp sand; his insolent beard, gorsey and stained as tide-abandoned foam. I had forgotten his permitted perimeter; the way he granulated then seem to wink out of existence, leaving me alone, a child at the land’s edge.

Father died not how he may have wished, with patrician dignity and surrounded by acolytes, but sat upright, propped against a folded bolster pillow – do they make those anymore? – and arguing about walnuts with my aunt Dorothy. Someone, she explained to me over the phone, someone, knowing him diabetic, the idiot, had brought him a bag of the things to nibble whilst he convalesced from a midsummer cold. Dorothy is eighty-eight and two years my father’s junior. She had assumed the role of matron, cook and chief-taster during his mild infirmity. She had been scolding him for such reckless disregard for his health when he raised a finger to reprimand her – I imagine with some erudite and withering epigram, probably in Latin – then tipped to the right, as if the raised finger had suddenly gained appallingly in weight, and stayed there, like a tree that inclines a few degrees but can fall no further. His last words were ‘these nuts are none of your concern’. As I say, not how he would have wished to go.

Dorothy, for all her querulous caretaking – she’s eighty-eight, I tell myself, give the old bird a break – is not one to ignore humour when it’s cantering around the room waiting to be acknowledged, black as a Spanish bull. She laughed when she told me down the phone of Father’s passing, laughed about his final words. And I laughed, too. Silly old goat. He’d always seemed to me as one in secret anticipation, primed for the moment when his wit would coincide with audience and circumstances to provide him with a killer put-down, the kind of thing everyone seems to think Churchill was so good at. But he always bottled it; when confronted with a gauche in-law’s Elton John-themed charcoal sketches or the egregious mispronunciation of Van Gogh, the most he would allow was a wry smile and raised eyebrow, indicating that he had thought of something dazzling but that etiquette denied him the pleasure of speaking. However, ‘these nuts are none of your concern’, it now seemed, was his actual punchline. Like the Great Gonzo raising his trumpet to give a mighty, singing blast, only for the bell to fart and bubble.

Continued here

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What I see from the window, before it gets dark

The sky assumes an equal portion with the buildings, perhaps a finger more, making the window half empty of sky. At this moment it is a blue – no surprise – that recedes sunwards into striated white gold. The sun is warm, edgeless, but appears more as its own reflection seen in frosted ice. I’ve watched it crest its hill and now it slow-rolls its bend down the other side towards the rooftops, behind which it will sneak, as if too bashful to snuff in full view.

There’s a balloon on Wihelm Strasse, where the Nazi ministries stood. It takes tourists up for a view of the city and I can see it, a straight line from here to there, in the middle of the window. Once, the sun and the balloon, both descending at once, became hemispheres together on the same rooftop, a double sunset. It reads: Die Welt.

The rooftops sprout chimneys, little turrets and glass pyramids and domes. There was a man up there, with three children, roving from rooftop to rooftop as if it was an initiation or there was some creature to be hunted. Continue reading

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‘It is required you do awake your faith…’

Bodesmuseum

So speaks Paulina in the Winter’s Tale. She is about to unveil a statue of Leontes’s wife, Hermione. He is responsible for her death and has been grieving for sixteen years. Within a few moments the statue will appear to come to life, reuniting the pair in a very unfashionable kind of reconciliation. There are textural hints that this is a piece of trickery for Leontes’s benefit, not magic; but the feelings that a good production of the Winter’s Tale can provoke in an audience suggest that something more powerful than an appreciation of good stage-craft or an eccentrically-handled spousal reunion is being experienced.

Depending on who you believe, Shakespeare was getting on a bit when he wrote the Winter’s Tale; he was one of the last playwrights old enough (or geographically placed) to have seen the Coventry mystery plays before their suppression in the 1570s. Hermione’s secular resurrection feels saturated in the mysticism, self-conscious theatricality and promise of redemption that must have infused both the mass and the festival performances of the old faith.

The use of magic and, equally, of unlikely and emotional restitution, often involving the ‘resurrection’ of one presumed dead, are obsessive themes of Shakespeare’s late work.* The ghosts of church ritual won’t die, sure, but nor will the magic itself, or the audience and the artist’s need to assert its power, even its supremacy.

Pier Paolo Passolini said “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

My statement might read: “I am an unbeliever who has a need for a belief.” And I find it in our collective ability to create art.

Such a desire for magic, faith, wonder or joy in art is routinely dismissed or exploited. And it always was, not least by the church. As a critical starting point, this is probably correct. To enter a state of wonderment we must often surrender our critical faculties and many of us probably aren’t willing to do that for, say, Cirque de Soleil in Vegas, a mass in St Peter’s square or the revelations of the divine feminine contained in the Da Vinci Code. But I, at least, need art to offer me these moments. And I want to experience them with my critical faculties intact. I want to read a book, watch a play or listen to piece of music that will lift me up in joyful rapturous wonderment without dropping me out at the other end feeling daft, conned or coated in dimming fairy dust.

There is art that offers a kind of personal revelation – the closest thing childless secularists such as myself are allowed to come to the full-on Gnostic soul-shock. It’s there in music, from Spem in Allium to Tears of a Clown; in the visual arts (that’s me in rather rapturous appreciation of a medieval Madonna and Child in the picture above) and in theatre.

But do we find these qualities in literature, where irony, melancholy and the intellect rule, where an accusation of sentimentalist is only beaten by plagiarist as the word any author would least like to see appended to their name, how can that magic, that potential for genuine – not the paltry, mealy, equivocal part-redemptions of so much literary fiction – redemption survive?

I’ve found it in Don Quixote; in the humour of the digressions, in Cervantes’s compassion-cruelty towards Sancho and his master. Everything is Illuminated had a similar effect when I read it; laughing at – and with – the characters, whilst tipping further towards atrocity and disappointment. In a dark, cold way, Nabakov can send chills of wonderment through me; his daredevil mastery of language, the audacity of such wit and beauty being used in such repellent contexts. Yet these are more gasps of amazement at the authors’ skill, wit or sense of beauty and none of these offer hope or redemption. Even Don Quixote’s death, with the old knight’s friends gathered around his bed, left me disappointed as he returns to his senses and renounces his errantry. I would have him die in the arms of a loving if entirely non-existent Dulcinea; the joyful counterweight to Lear, cradling an imagined-breathing yet dead as clay Cordelia.

It’s least present where it’s promised. Life of Pi told me it would make me believe in God. By the last page I didn’t even believe in tigers. Perhaps the joy experienced in literature can only be melancholic, so tinged is most great work with an awareness of what someone described as Shakespeare’s great subject, time. And a novel, rather than a painting, which freezes a moment, thwarting time, or music, which renews when played, or theatre, where the dead resurrect each night and step forward for applause, perhaps a novel, which must tell a story and must end, is of all these art forms both the most modern – thus the least rooted in church ritual – and the least capable of inspiring in us that illusion of magic and redemption. Or am I wrong?

*

Incidentally, my own entirely subjective and unscholarly theory for this is that – regardless of his relationship with his own daughters, troubled or otherwise – Shakespeare, as a writer rather than a father, somehow went too far, by killing off Cordelia in King Lear. Notoriously unfounded in either Holinshead or the anonymous play that precedes Shakespeare’s effort, Cordelia’s death adds nothing to the story other than to definitively destroy all hope. Nahum Tate certainly thought so; in his popular ‘improved’ version, Cordelia is cut down from the noose and marries Edgar. My feeling is that WS did help to would himself with this cruelty. In the Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Pericles and Cymbeline, daughters are (after much capture by pirates etc) protected, loved and rewarded; they win through, marry-for-love, are proven right, have adventures and always end up hand in hand with daddy. For what it’s worth, I sense atonement.

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