[A note: most of this blog is Brit-centric. This is a very American recording by a very American artist. It’s also brilliant, and concerned with the same topics as I am, so, y’know.]
In the rush to forget, there are those who find themselves compelled to remember. To act, not just as their own memories, but the memories of entire cultures – to act as shaman and scribe. Modernity, as Paul Connerton says, ‘has a particular problem with forgetting. To say this is not to claim that modernity has a monopoly of cultural amnesia … [but] it remains the case that there are types of structural forgetting which are specific to the culture of modernity.’
This couldn’t be more true than it is in America, 2019, in which there is an almost fanatical demand for horizontal time – that each event of the past be like the milemarkers that stand at the side of an American highway; points on the line noted in passing mostly for not having passed sooner. And what has arisen in response is a subculture – I think, perhaps, it’s time to call it a cult; a wonderful, fruitful cult – of remembering.
Brian Harnetty is a shaman, scribe, archivist and archaeologist of these memories, and his latest work – Shawnee, Ohio; the culmination of nearly a decade of research, composition and meticulous remembering – is nothing less than a masterpiece.
The music on this album is based around haunting oral-history recordings made in the 1950s and 1980s with residents of his grandparents’ hometown of Shawnee*, Ohio (pop. 655), and related areas of the rural and Appalachian parts of the state**. These recordings occasionally find the often-elderly interviewees discussing important historical events – notably the Millfield Mine Disaster, the worst of its kind in Ohio’s coal-riddled history. But just as often they are discussions of everyday, now-forgotten lives: ‘Jim’ opens the album, for example, by talking about watching people walk up and down Main Street in his childhood, in doing so creating a Joycean map of now-gone Shawnee. There’s ‘Lucy’, who describes playing music at events we might not today imagine as landmarks of social life, such as a miner’s safety meeting, and complementary ‘Judd’, who speaks of his life as a miner.
Around this, composer and pianist Harnetty has lovingly woven a soft city out of light and shadow, clarinet and cello, vibraphone and squeezebox, banjo and time. Harnetty’s music is like Gavin Bryars with a deep knowledge of the Appalachian front porch and living room; parlour music for a Jarmusch film. But those comparisons are just lures; mentions warranted as much by a shared goal, the re-imagining of collapsed places and the resuscitation of flatlining memories, an act David Southwell might categorize under his slogan, ‘Re-enchantment is resistance’. (I’ll say little about the music here, because others have done so better and will continue to do so.)
In reinvigorating the lives of ordinary people, now-dead, I don’t think Harnetty is aggrandizing the past at the expense of the future – the danger that the cult risks. There is, certainly, a romance to these long-gone ways of being – as when ‘Ina’ sings a localized version of an old murder ballad in untrained lilts, something few could arrange with such tenderness as Harnetty’s music. But his chosen voices are those whose stories map onto our own: when a child quizzes his grandmother about the old days for a school oral-history project (in the 1980s), we hear only the questions. The questions are the only part that matter.
I’m reminded here of one of the most powerful artworks I’ve seen in my days: a performance by college students in West Virginia of Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak. In CME, documentary poems based on the government’s inquiry into a mining disaster are juxtaposed with school curricula about mining and labour. Nowak and the performers had transformed base administrative texts into something so profound, so evocative and nearly religious, of a life commonly thought of as ‘the past’ and yet decidedly connected to the present and future of these peoples’ lives. In ‘Jack’ and ‘John’ Harnetty uses modern recordings, of an anti-fracking rally in Wayne National Forest in Southeastern Ohio, and of a street party in Rendville, Ohio, a predominantly African-American. They sound, both in recording quality and cultural tone, as though they might be from any of the sessions otherwise used on Shawnee, Ohio.
And their message couldn’t be more clear: memory is re-enchantment is resistance.
A couple o’ notes:
*Shawnee’s name itself is a haunting: in America we name the new after that which was destroyed to make way for it, and Shawnee, Ohio, is no different. It calls to mind the mound builders and Monongahelans who, as Shawnee, were pushed to today’s Oklahoma from their homes near the Ohio River, in that state, in West Virginia, and near my own home in Pittsburgh. (Side shame: In 1763 the commanders of Fort Pitt appear to have purposefully spread smallpox to the Shawnee and related warriors besieging them, with commendation from superiors that they must, ‘try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race’.)
**For Brits and others reading this not from this part of America, Ohio is often thought of for cities: rust-belt Cleveland, Universities in Columbus, Cincinnati’s riverboats and King Records. But hundreds of miles of Ohio are more like rural West Virginia or Kentucky than they are Detroit, Pittsburgh or Chicago.