An OA playlist: There are thousands of versions of the song “John Henry,” and every one, Greil Marcus argues in “Guitar Drag,” is “an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity, with the song rolling down the decades from the 1920s.” As a companion to the essay, Marcus offers this playlist, his choice of the versions of “John Henry” that stand out among the others.
Everyone knows something about the power of things, how they remind us of our actions over time, how they have the power to delight or disappoint us. I’m referring here to what Katy Simpson Smith calls “oddments”—the items we don’t mean to collect, that we can’t quite bring ourselves to throw away, that we put on a desk in a spare room and forget.
First, anticipate it. In fact, anticipate disappearances, jail time, lawsuits, death threats, broken things, cocaine, young wives, younger girlfriends, children. Don’t be fooled by the pauses. They will be full of bluegrass, money, convertibles, grand homes in foreign countries, pet orangutans, and infinite promise. Also cocaine, young wives, younger girlfriends, children. Get away from him. Do it young.
“Stop!” he yelled, jumping to his feet. He slapped his hands down on the chess sets, scattering the pieces across the sidewalk. People stopped to watch. His face went red, and he shouted, “I MUST TELL YOU THAT I AM THE GREATEST CHESS PLAYER OF ALL TIME!”
Drive east on Main Street in Winnfield, a hollowed-out city of fewer than 5,000 residents set amid the pine and hardwood forests of northern Louisiana, and you’ll pass the Country Cajun Deli, a couple old-fashioned pharmacies, and a series of vacant storefronts in impressive red-brick buildings. Continue over the still-used freight tracks, look directly to your left, and you’ll notice the old L&A rail depot set back from the road. With its shabby green-and-white-striped awnings and wraparound deck, the building looks out of place—like a dockside restaurant beached in the landlocked hill country—and so does the diamond-shaped placard next to it that reads LOUISIANA POLITICAL MUSEUM & HALL OF FAME.
It’s an American tradition made manifest in class ascendancy (moving to New York to escape a hick town, getting an education and altering an accent): when we feel incomplete—when we feel uncomfortable in our own skin—we seek newer, richer identities. We examine the people who have what we want; we costume ourselves.
An interview with David Armand.
What strikes the reader about this book is the heart-wrenching and universal tale of its protagonist, the young man Leslie Somers, and Leslie’s search for his father and ultimately himself. Think of Oedipus Rex and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms: like Oedipus and Joel Knox, Leslie has never known his biological father and is on a quest to find him.