There are plenty of good reasons that I’d never heard (or even heard of) the strange, arresting “back porch hillbilly blues” of Henry Flynt before reading about it in David Grubbs’ recent book Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording. For one, I’m not a music aficionado. I know plenty of people with seemingly infinite and instant recall of obscure musical facts, chronologies, biographies, discographies. I admire these people, but my experience of music (aside from some inevitable nostalgia) has always been immediate and (for better or worse) a bit ahistorical. Music happens to me in the moment. And Flynt’s music demanded my attention, immediately, in the moment, when I heard the first few jangly guitar notes of “Uncle Sam Do” from his album I Don’t Wanna. I could say that I’m reminded of Marisa Anderson’s improvisational guitar playing, or that there’s a proto-punk sensibility to it, but what I really care about is what’s happening in my own ears.
Another thing: Flynt’s recordings from the mid-1960s through the 1980s weren’t even widely available until some small indie record labels (Locust Music and Recorded Records) began releasing them in the early 2000s. As an avant-garde artist, he seems to have looked askance at commercial success. In his essay “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music,” Flynt realizes that he “was competing with musicians for whom the last step in composing a piece is the sale—musicians for whom a bad piece that sells is a good piece—and it is time to be clear about this. My mission statement makes it evident that my purposes were hopelessly out of step with what the market was rewarding.” Later he argues, “Commercial-mechanistic-impersonal civilization is progressively crushing people’s spirit.” For Flynt, the ubiquity and domination of commercially popular music hinders the possibility for a revitalized American ethnic music. This revitalization of “the musical languages of the autochthonous communities” was certainly part of his larger artistic mission and his critique of mass culture; he claims that “if ethnic music is being drowned out, it is because people’s spirit is being crushed by contemporary civilization.” Henry Flynt’s music may participate in a much larger cultural argument, a much deeper and intellectually significant project, but my attraction to his work is less philosophical and more aesthetic. That is, I’m certainly interested in Flynt’s meanings and intentions and arguments, but I also just want to have an experience of this strange, difficult, and thoroughly unbeautiful music. Take “Blue Sky, Highway and Thyme,” for instance: 16 minutes of basically the same blues passage accompanied by Flynt’s moaning. Or listen to the 9-minute raga-like fiddle riff of “Hillbilly Jive.” It’s hard to argue with him when he says that he “did for hillbilly music what Ornette Coleman did for jazz.” (Coleman, whose work could be equally strange, difficult, and unbeautiful.)
Flynt’s work also makes me wonder as a poet if we might draw any aesthetic lessons from these formal experiments within the idiom of hillbilly and blues music. Perhaps I’m looking for linguistic equivalencies that don’t (or just can’t) exist, but then maybe we can discover characteristics, elements, ideas, inspirations that might have apt analogues in other arts. I suppose the greatest compliment I can offer an artist in another medium is that I want to recreate in my own work the experience I’ve had with theirs. This is certainly the case when I heard Henry Flynt’s music.
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the museum published J.D. Schraffenberger‘s poetry in Issue Six.
To read “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,” click here.