Past and Present in the Songs of Scott H. Biram by William Schraufnagel, San Diego State University
The question of “public memory” is immediately troubled by a paradox, for strictly speaking, “memory” is a private affair. What each of us understands by the trope of “memory” is based on observations of our own psychological workings. These alone seem to me complex enough, as anyone might attest who has attempted to think, write, or speak about his or her own memories. If we hypothetically imagine a “public” and then ascribe to such a vague body its own capacity for “memory,” the problem stretches even further, to the point of bewilderment. Can any event be “remembered” by a “public”? Literally speaking, it cannot. Psychological memory has a purely physical, bodily element that renders it a uniquely individual phenomenon. But is it worthwhile to talk of “public memory”? If we give ourselves over to symbols, language, metaphor, and communication, then yes. A memory can only become “public” if it is symbolized, that is, socialized through an act of language.
To get at the difficult riddle of “public memory,” then, I propose an approach grounded in rhetorical pragmatism, the analysis of symbols of the past and present. Any private “memory” always maintains a wavering tension between the regions of language (symbols) and non-linguistic (non-symbolic) sensation. But the non-linguistic is meaningless to the “public.” By “linguistic,” I here mean every physical expression of the human body that is interpreted—every gesture, posture, sound and movement that passes between individuals—in addition to words uttered. This forms the basis for my definition of “symbol,” and I will use the terms “linguistic,” “symbolic,” “social,” and “public” interchangeably. For me, a symbol is that which passes between individuals, and must be the starting point for any conception of “public” memory. What is the purpose of these symbols? The symbol most conducive to “memory” we might guess to be “narrative.” If we tell (symbolize) one of our memories of an actual event, we must provide a context, a sequence of events, and a sense of the time elapsed between then and now. The narrative of any memory, to say “it happened,” is thus a symbol not only of the past, but for the present. In fact we might say that present needs precede our narratives of the past, although we know that the actual past, whatever it was, came before our stories of it. Doubtless my own needs at present drive the present analysis, but I will leave those implied rather than stated.
The symbols I wish to study are songs of the past and present, performed by contemporary musician Scott H. Biram. Each of these songs is a “narrative” in its own right; we might even speak metaphorically of each song as a distinct “public memory.” Using Kenneth Burke’s term “identification” and Gregory Clark’s recent study of United States National Parks, I will argue that Biram himself, along with the multiple personae in his songs, offers a potent “symbol for identification” to our cultural moment. The four songs to be analyzed appear on an album entitled Lo-Fi Mojo, published (made “public”) in 2003. The first three are renditions of older songs from the American blues/folk tradition, and the fourth is a Biram original, written in the same tradition.
II. “The White House Blues” and “The Sinking of the Titanic”
Events become “historical” when they become “public,” talked about, discussed, symbolized. John Bodnar distinguishes between “official” and “vernacular” versions of public memory. “Official” culture, according to Bodnar, promotes a unified, timeless, sacred narrative, “ideal rather than complex or ambiguous.” It seeks to reinforce existing power structures and maintain the status quo. On the other hand, “vernacular” culture is comprised of many voices, often conflicting, and emphasizes “views of reality derived from firsthand experience in small-scale communities” (13-14). Bodnar’s focus is on commemoration and so his “symbols” of public memory are necessarily blends of “official” and “vernacular” elements, forums “in which various parts of the social structure exchange views” (15). My focus in what follows will not be on the exchange between views. Rather I will read two of Biram’s “historical” songs as explicitly (and exclusively) “vernacular” attempts to usurp the public memory of “historical” events from any possible “official” rendition. Whether they succeed in this attempt is left indeterminate.
U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated on September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, NY. There have been many versions of a song called “The White House Blues” performed since then, by many different musicians. A quick Internet search will reveal different lyrics in different versions. These musicological differences do not interest me so much as the song’s depiction of the “historical” event of a president’s assassination, and Biram’s depiction in particular:
McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled,
Doc says “McKinley, I can’t find that ball”
In Buffalo, in Buffalo
As the title of the song suggests, the cadence of the stanza is from the blues. The President “hollers” and “squalls,” certainly not verbs accustomed to “official” presidential discourse. And the specificity of the lyric allows to see, even feel the bullet inside the man’s body. We are not surprised to find basic confirmation on-line (Wikipedia)  that the actual President McKinley did, in fact, die of complications from a bullet wound—a bullet that was not successfully removed. Whatever claim to authority made by an “official” history or public symbol of this assassination (including variously, for example: the funeral/gravesite, entries in textbooks, the electrocution of the murderer, monetary inheritance to family, continuation of governing policies and/or transfer of power; all of these more or less “official public memories” of the President’s death), the “vernacular” song excludes from its rendition. The song’s exclusive claim to authority as a “historical” symbol (or “public memory”) asserts itself with almost Shakespearean intensity:
Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best,
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’s taking ever rest.
He’s gonna be gone, a long time.
Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s drinking from a silver cup,
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he’ll never wake up,
It’ll be a long, long time.
The silver cup is a symbol of authority and power; the song assigns it to Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, and so reserves the real power for itself-as-song, itself-as-symbol of “public memory,” as cultural authority. By adapting and performing the song, Biram joins himself (“identifies”) with others who have performed it. More importantly, he absorbs the perspective of the song, the point of view from which the story is told as shaped through the various personalities of past musicians.
At this point in cultural history, we are likely to encounter McKinley’s assassination first through a song like “The White House Blues” and then develop an interest in the historical details. Or if we remember the fact from high school or have a particular interest in American history, we never will have encountered the event so vividly presented. At least, after hearing the song, we are unlikely to forget this particular “narrative” depiction when thinking of the death of William McKinley. Insofar as that holds true, the song becomes a very real part of our “public memory” and can inform any larger “historical” narrative we tell of the United States and ourselves in it. Insofar as the song “contaminates” our “super-narrative,” it succeeds in its attempted usurpation. Ironically, it may even come to function as an individual’s privately held “official” memory, or the “official” narrative of a “vernacular” community, or quasi-“officially” to a would-be imitator. But my use of Bodnar’s terms has drifted from their source. This discussion will be continued later on, when we consider “identification” in greater depth.
If “The White House Blues” attempts to usurp a “political” narrative of public history, a song called “Titanic” claims authority, darkly, as an “economic” treatise of sorts. Like “The White House Blues,” it is a folk song ascribed to an anonymous or composite author. I contacted Biram by e-mail and asked him where he first heard the song, and he replied that it was either Son House or Mance Lipscomb, he could not remember. I did manage to locate a recording entitled “The Sinking of the Titanic” by Lipscomb, with the same lyrics as Biram sings, on the album Live at the 1966 Berkeley Blues Festival (co-recorded with Clifton Chenier and Lightning Hopkins). I only emphasize these details in order to illustrate the diffusion and composite nature of authorship, the workings of creative borrowing and adaptation that form a “vernacular” tradition of public memory.
The song’s “economic” stance might best be summed up in its final ironic stanza. The Titanic was a kind of “ultimate” symbol of economic power, and its demise is symbolized by the song as a cosmic revenge against that symbol. If the passing of the “silver cup” has a touch of the Shakespearean Kings about it, the “Titanic” echoes the Book of Job:
You know Jacob Astor was a millionaire
Plenty of money to spare!
Boat was sinking, and he couldn’t pay his fare
God moves on the water, lord
The people got to run and pray.
“God” usurps economic power over dollars, and the stock market is rendered minor next to the dark waves of the ocean. I have mentioned the importance, in these “historical” songs, of the “perspective” or point of view established by the song. A successful performer of the song, like Biram, identifies with this perspective and makes the perspective available to listeners. No moment in “The White House Blues” matches the pathos achieved by the singer/narrator’s (symbolic) perspective on the sinking ship:
The Titanic was sinking,
They sent lifeboats all around,
They said, “Save the women and the children,”
You gotta watch your man go down.
They said, “Look out over that ocean,”
You gotta watch your man go down.
More of us are likely to have encountered the story of the ship Titanic, sunk April 14, 1912, than of McKinley’s assassination in 1902. Yet no form of “public memory” concerning the Titanic has affected me so deeply and complexly as the thought of being a woman or child on a lifeboat, huddling in the cold, watching my father or husband sink to his death. As tremendous as the suffering is allowed to be, the song balances empathy with a curse. God moving on the water affirms the dark power of the song and “fate,” which after all is just a symbolic reduction of the song. The luxury ship is punished as a caprice, along with the decadence it represents. In contrast to any narrative that would portray the Titanic in purely sentimental tones, purely as “tragedy,” there is a grim sense of justice about Biram’s rendition. As with “The White House Blues,” the power of the song to usurp the “memory” of the “historic” event will vary from listener to listener.
III. “Identification” in Kenneth Burke and Gregory Clark
So far comments have been made about the “perspectives” or “points of view” established by songs upon particular “historical” events. We have considered two American blues/folk songs of anonymous/composite authorship performed by Scott H. Biram, labeled simply “traditional,” that adopt “vernacular” stances seeking to usurp cultural authority and pre-empt “official” narratives of these events. But so far the “points of view” in the songs have lurked in the background. The “narrators” within these songs are shadowy, “generic” story-tellers, shifting and “universal” like an ancient Greek Chorus. The remaining two songs to be presented are more “personalized,” with narrative “perspectives” grounded in coherent human figures. The two selected are intended to represent the many other personae in Biram’s songs beyond the scope of this paper. Before I continue my analysis, however, I must develop a theoretical angle already introduced to assist my way. I have used the words “identify” and “identification” at scattered moments thus far, anticipating the following explication, and my final argument will likewise depend on the trope of “identification.”
Kenneth Burke argues in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) that “Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Yet he also argues that the principle of “identification” transcends division because it “logically” precedes it and, in a way, “contains” it. As Burke phrases this, “there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join battle only through a mediatory ground that makes their communication possible, thus providing the first condition necessary for their interchange of blows” (25). Here the trope of “combat” stands in for all rhetorical “symbols” or symbolic interchanges. For Burke, even symbolic acts of slaying, exclusion, and annulment involve aspects of “identification,” because the “the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20).
For examples, let us briefly consider the “identifications” at work in “The White House Blues” and “Titanic.” Both “narratives” or “public memories” portray actual death and killing, and both adopt a stance towards these events that attempts, more or less, to “kill” (or usurp, overwhelm, replace, “swallow up,” etc.) narratives that would sterilize these events for the sake of “official” simplicity and “sacredness.” There is a different kind of sacredness at work in these old songs, and it does not aim, on the face of it, for “social unity.” But this discussion would be impossible if singers had not engaged in some respect with the institutions of the U.S. Presidency and the Titanic. As Burke might say, the “ground” for the songs’ attempted usurpation is a fundamental “identification” with American civic discourse and with a society who’s “interests” (including “investments” of public “identity”) may include the White House and/or “memories” of the famous ship.
These examples of “identification” through usurpation and exclusion are obscure, however, like the narrative viewpoints in the songs themselves. Burke’s rhetorical project in general “considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another” (22). The forms or “symbols” of identification in “The White House Blues” and “Titanic” are obscure because the songs’ individuals are obscure, the loci of observation within the songs are fleeting and rough-hewn. In competing with all possible “official” stories of “historic” catastrophes, the songs adopt an archaic, “timeless” character that Bodnar might even be tempted to classify as quasi-“official.”
Contemporary rhetorician Gregory Clark focuses on “symbolic landscapes” as forms for “identification” by which Americans “transcend” their differences and join into community. This experience Clark calls a “public experience of collective identity” (71). He refers specifically to the United States National Park system, and claims that such places as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon binds Americans together for a common purpose and identity. Insofar as such “identities” include narratives about the past (which we suspect they must, invariably), Clark’s National Parks would qualify as “symbols” of public memory under our definition. And he is correct in recognizing that “communion” is a “profound individual identification with a collective—they [i.e., we] all need” (77). Clark usefully shows how many people who would naturally be “divided” instead become “unified” by mutual “identification” with a common symbol, which symbol then constitutes an “identity.” In this, Clark has given us as good a Burkean definition of the rhetorical symbol that is “public memory” as we are likely to find.
Yet we think that Clark is not being dialectical enough. From the Burkean standpoint, Clark tends to over-stress “unification” and de-stress its complement “division.” In his eagerness to account for American “communion,” he neglects the Burkean admonishment that individuals “become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.” The rhetoric of Clark’s National Parks overcomes the common differences in favor of common likenesses. In the Bodnarian dialectic, Clark’s rhetoric of “transcendence” tilts his analysis towards “official” biases, adopting tones of simplicity and unambiguousness. This has somewhat the opposite effect of “vernacular” attempts at usurpation: it serves to dampen, erase, or “move beyond” the discordant elements in our society. This is not so bad as it seems. We do not reject Clark by any means, but rather dialectically attempt our own Clarkian analysis beginning with a break from Clark, a conscious choice to strengthen the voice of discord, a haunt of otherness.
IV. “Pastures of Plenty” and “Truck Driver”
The mysterious narrative “points of view” in the anonymous folk songs and the rugged landscapes of National Parks now must sharpen into specific persons. We are discussing symbols of the past and present and individuals’ “identification” with those symbols in the formation of “public memory.” Since we are persons, one might guess that we “identify” best with other persons. But I wish to be more Burkean than Clarkean in emphasizing the dialectic of unity and division—so that one is never totally free from the other. That is to say, if we “identify” with a person or persona (as a “character” in a song), we ambiguously join and divide with them, there is a bit of struggle necessarily involved. And when we “identify” with a group, it is a group against other groups. In the back of our minds, we remember that as language-users, as animals, as organisms, etc. we all belong to groups-of-groups. But we also realize that the more we generalize, the more we specify. For example: we may argue that the most general “identification” each of us can assert in an “ecological” sense is that of organism; that we have in common even with insects and flowers. But that label so thoroughly strips the vocabulary for social motives that the word “organism” becomes precisely the word for our physical body-matter, our pains and our weaknesses, and “ultimately” each of our own, incommunicable deaths.
When we identify ourselves with (or as) “characters,” I believe we are at our most social, rhetorical, “public.” The strongest “identifications” I can imagine for public purposes are symbolic portrayals of human beings. Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Pastures of Plenty” from the point of view of an archetypal migrant worker, and Biram performs a version of it. There is a famous stanza that Bob Dylan alluded to in his tribute “Song to Woody,” and Guthrie combines the “vernacular” stance with its own kind of “symbolic landscape”:
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of your moon
At the edge of your city, you seen us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind.
The rhetorical work of “identification” in this stanza is done by the pronouns. The singer Biram identifies himself with the main character of the song, the migrant worker. Biram himself is a migrant worker as a traveling musician, so the “identification” has a corresponding basis in the patterns of actual life. “I worked in your orchards” sets up the basic dichotomy of I/you for the rest of the song.
The distinction between the two halves is economic. The self is defined by a division between ownership and labor. The worker “sleeps on the ground” and projects his “alienation” such that the owner owns even the moon. Strangely enough, this may be the closest point of “unification” between the worker and boss. Both “free” in their solitude, their relationship is purely idealized. When the worker looks at the moon and sees his boss, he never more profoundly “identifies” with him. The point of contact, collision, confrontation, and dispersal comes when the owner sees the worker and the worker sees the owner. The narrator of the song comes to the “edge of your city.” Here is the seat of power where reside banks, courts, and the private homes of the governors. No sooner has this “edge” been “bridged” by the gaze across it—Bodnar would this an “intersection” between “official” and “vernacular” cultures—than the worker disappears.
Guthrie’s vicissitudes of “identification” are highly dialectical. Splitting from “identification” with his boss/owner, the worker “identifies” with the land itself, the “dust and the wind.” This is an attempt at imaginative usurpation, akin to that of the “historical” songs already discussed. Guthrie (and Biram, “vicariously” through identification with Guthrie as performer of his song) deepens and amplifies his worker/narrator’s “identification” with the landscape. We might present this stanza alongside Clark’s study as a contrast:
California, Arizona, I’ll make all your crops
And it’s north up to Oregon, to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine,
To set on your table, your light sparkling wine
The worker identifies himself with the states of the Union with echoes of Walt Whitman. More pertinent to rhetoric, Guthrie/Biram maintain a strict distinction between “I” and “you.” It is a dichotomy implicit in “The White House Blues” and “Titanic,” but made explicit here. The class distinction is clarified by the final line, in which the worker/servant brings the literal “fruits of his labor” for the owner’s (“your”) light-hearted pleasure.
This song performs the same “vernacular” attempt at usurpation of “official” public memory. In this case it seeks to undermine narratives that would assert “rights of ownership” based on monetary/financial grounds. The voice of the song claims priority and authority as a more authentic “owner” of the land. Contrast this position briefly with Clark’s analysis of the U.S. National Parks. Clark’s “symbolic landscapes” are sanctioned by the state, carved and bordered. Guthrie’s landscapes are worked: “It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed.” Guthrie makes a claim on the soil and the sustenance of his “other,” his factional opponent. He does it with that same accommodating yet fiercely partisan air of the other songs analyzed so far. It is no stretch to say that Biram “identifies” with these figures—musicians of the past and the “characters” in their songs.
Our own “identification” with these songs, singers, and characters may vary among us, but insofar as we “identify” with them we commit ourselves to (or “invest” ourselves in) the principles of faction and conflict. We need not work in fields to experience such identifications. As Guthrie’s shift from field-worker to table-servant implies, the center of the “identification” is an economic relationship. Listening to the song, we may even find that we have more in common. But the “perspective” of the song argues in favor of the worker. Whoever we are, it admonishes us that value originates in labor and throws doubt upon the authority of money, of ownership justified on financial grounds.
My argument is that Scott H. Biram, the traveling singer, is a dialectical “symbol for identification” and makes dialectical “symbols for identification.” One of the strongest examples is his cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.” With this and other interpretations of older blues/folk songs, Biram identifies himself with the tradition, and so becomes part of that tradition. I have focused so far on symbols of the past—but what is their use for the present? How does Biram adapt the stances, viewpoints, and lessons of the tradition for present needs? I near the end of my analysis, and there is much to be said on this question—more than I can begin to address, for now—but I will finish with a brief “beginning” of that exploration. Biram’s original songs are varied, but most maintain essential connections between work, land, and a somewhat “spiritual” assertion of “vernacular” culture against “official” culture (justified by work and “identification” with the land).
Many of Biram’s own songs are told from the point of view of a contemporary truck driver. This “perspective” is developed in many directions in his newest songs, but I will select his first attempt at symbolically “characterizing” the truck driver, in a song aptly named “Truck Driver.” Biram’s chorus in this song echoes of Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”:
I’ve been to Detroit, LA,
New York, Mississipp-I-A
Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam,
East Texas, and Viet-Nam,
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy on a weary soul
Yeah I’m burning down this highway
And I’m pulling on a heavy load
There is freedom in “burning down this highway,” but the load is heavy. Also note the list of geographical locations as a way of identifying with the land-in-general. Finally, we can see how Biram’s song might encompass Clark’s analysis (via the Grand Canyon) and a recent event in American history (Vietnam) that may not be so widely “memorialized” in the musical tradition. I do not think Biram’s “Truck Driver” matches Guthrie’s migrant worker’s power of usurpation in “Pastures of Plenty,” but I think the debt and attempt to extend the traditional stance is clear. We might say that in songs like “Truck Driver” Biram forms a symbol of the present and for the future (as well, of course, as for the present). There is a past narrative to this symbol of the present, in the American musical tradition, as Biram emphasizes by recording the old songs. But the past-as-past must be obscured in order to portray the present, a lesson we might care to remember when attempting to symbolize the past for present purposes.
Biram, Scott H. Lo-Fi Mojo. KnuckleSandwich Records, 2003.
Biram, Scott H. E-mail to the author. 16 April 2007.
Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth
Burke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Chenier, Clifton, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightning Hopkins. Live at 1966 Berkeley Blues Festival. Arhoolie Records, 2000.
Dylan, Bob. Bob Dylan. Columbia Records, 1962.
Wikipedia – William McKinley. 16 May 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mckinley
Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:McKinleyAssassination.jpg 15 May 2007: Drawing of the McKinley assassination from http://teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer_pol_hist/thumbnail261.html, public domain.