The Sookie Stackhouse Anthology

by on Aug.18, 2011

Pam from True Blood

All the authorities who write about what [folk music] is and what it should be, when they say keep it simple, that it should easily be understood—folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird…Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death.   — Bob Dylan

I’ve been watching season 4 of one of my favorite TV shows at the moment, True Blood, and I’ve also been re-listening to Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, very possibly the best complication of songs ever put together in the States, and I can’t help but see one as haunting the other. Unlike, say, Friday Night Lights, which gives the viewer an earnest portrayal of “the south” (or at least Texas), with its quotidian vision of small town life, a vision that is clearly trying to give us a sense that this is an authentic world we are watching, with real-life problems, both the Smith anthology and True Blood revel in the more grotesque notions about the south. The south they present is spectral and excessive and gargoylean. It’s not a place so much as a fever dream of images and narratives.

In fact, True Blood has been criticized for its excesses. Not only is it about vampires: there are also shape-shifters, werewolves, were-panthers, and fairies. Any season now I expect them to add elves, dwarves, and leprechauns. But I like the thrown-together quality of these monsters and otherworldly beings: it makes the TV series itself monstrous, constantly shifting and convulsing and adding new limbs under our eyes.

In a similar way, the musicians on the Smith anthology give us narratives populated by drifters, spirits, seers, creepy children (the eerie-as-hell young girl who skips through the jailhouse in “John Henry”), the saved and the damned. No wonder the anthology has had such a huge influence, and not only on Bob Dylan (who understood the Smith anthology so much better than the blandly well-meaning folk singers of his early years), but also Lou Reed and Nick Cave.

What Griel Marcus writes about the Anthology could equally apply to True Blood: Here both murder and suicide are rituals, acts instantly transformed into legend, facts that in all their specificity transform everyday life into myth, or reveal that at its highest pitch life is a joke. Thus humor abounds, most of it cruel…

7 comments for this entry:
  1. megan milks

    hi james!
    true blood, yess! great post. i want to point out, though, that the show’s excesses, shifts, convulsions – this aggregation of supposedly mutually exclusive paranormalcies – is a feature of the series of books the show was adapted from, and a good deal of the paranormal romance genre as a whole. i studied some of these books when for a brief time i thought i’d try some hack writing and make the big bucks, and i think most lit folks would be amazed at how easily the usually-separate creatures (weres, vampires, shapeshifters) commingle in the world of paranormal romance. this does seem part and parcel of the excesses of romance publishing – writers/publishers compelled to keep their narratives (to borrow your language) “shifting and convulsing and adding new limbs under our eyes” to keep what is an intensely loyal readership hungry for more, all these stories proliferating to feed the beast.

  2. Johannes

    Great post. I was trying to get a little at this notsosaltof the earth idea of folk culture in my post abt geechie wiley too. I think youre talking abt john hardy where the girls skip around. Johannes

  3. Johannes

    Also, Harry Smith made occult movies. He was ver weird. Not at all an “accessible” idea of folk art.

  4. James Pate

    Hi Megan,
    The books sound fascinating…I had no idea there were so many intermingling horror worlds in the genre…I’ll have to check them out…

    And Johannes,
    You’re right: it’s John Hardy. In fact, the first time I heard the song was on that mix tape you gave me back in Iowa…

  5. Jennie

    Hi James,

    Great post. On the subject of True Blood & folk music & grotesques, it’s worth watching the documentary Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus, which inspired the show’s title sequence. The film explores the South as a unique environment that gives rise to people making music of unusual ‘strangeness’.

    Here’s the start of the film:

  6. James Pate

    Hi Jennie,

    Thanks for the link…I love the title sequence in True Blood. It was what initially drew me into the series. With its mixture of rot and rabid stylization it’s like a brief work of art in itself…

  7. Kim

    Hi James!
    Great post! I’ve been enjoying True Blood – the decadence – excess – grotesque – which (I think) are all important to the complex layering of characters and plots. Your post also made me think of VC Andrews and Faulkner – the sort of gothic/horror southern writing tradition that they employed – overlaps with True Blood and Smith’s Anthology.

    When I first listened to Smith’s Anthology I didn’t know much about him nor think of the music in the terms you’ve described but now i’m thinking I’ll listen to it again – and from what I remember of the Anthology – your and Marcus’ description is perfect.

    Jennie –
    I had no idea that’s what the title sequence is based on – I’ll have to look up the documentary – thanks for sharing!