. . . Old Acquaintance

. . .

In its final scene, 1943's Old Acquaintance brilliantly explains away its own trashiness by ascribing the story's authorship to the movie's talentless hack writer rather than to its artistic one.

. . .

There is, I think, a critical term which can cover McTell's character-driven vocals, his interest in performance rather than songwriting, his playfulness and close observation, even his eclecticism, and it isn't "blues," but "negative capability."

What goes on to distinguish McTell from Keats's idealized poet (if not from Keats himself) is the intelligence he brings to the job, an intelligence he's unwilling to sacrifice to sentimentality or method acting. How to marry the empathic and analytic impulses, fleshly weakness and rational judgment? In a dance rhythm, of course, but how else?

How else but with our old acquaintance irony? And McTell's is a particularly supple and slippery irony, clinging to bring out the subtleties of each gesture. It leaves him lightfooted and assured, free to underplay or overplay as seems appropriate, less chameleon than cosmopolitan: a human of many parts.

w Helen Edwards  
Given that, it's interesting to hear McTell try to negotiate the territory of sacred music, which would seem to require at least a pretense of sincerity. Though a few of his religious numbers drown in lugubriosity, he's successful with "Motherless Children" (never the most theocentric of songs) and with the restrained mournful reasonableness of "(Might as Well Live a Christian) You Got To Die"; in both, he frequently hands off responsibility for "lead vocals" to his slide guitar, as if fearing a slip in tone.

But -- on sacred ground or not -- sardonic observation is allowed to run riot in "God Don't Like It," whose monstrous church lady bad-mouths each tippling member of the congregation and clergy while her quailed minion McTell peeps assent beneath her glare.

Returning from sheep to goats, comic distance also softens the sting of "Southern Can." An ancestor to the mellow thuggery of G-funk, its celebration of woman-beating is burlesqued by its own hyperbole and reduced to near whimsy -- like the little sword-swinging man in the Thurber cartoon -- by McTell's vocals, which are held to a light drawl even when he claims "I'm screaming." What's being observed here, with amused-but-absorbed detachment, isn't violence but the threatener of violence.

The best example of McTell's dry-eyed empathy and focus on the telling detail may be "Little Delia" (2MB MP3). It's another ballad with a varied history, but here McTell's adaptation doesn't emphasize the narrative. Instead, he fractures it into a collection of vignettes rippling forwards and backwards from the central drop-in-the-bucket -- a verse is accidently repeated without noticeable damage -- each principal and accessory given a piercing glance and passed by.

He changes the story's protagonists to professional lowlifes -- gamblers, "rounders" -- and then emphasizes their typicality, most insistently in the single-line chorus (that lyric form beloved of Yeats) "She's one more rounder gone." No one is granted dignity -- Delia's parents seem less upset by Delia's death than by her not having the decency to "die at home" -- and Delia herself is utterly disposable, only of interest to a court that, in turn, is only interested in punishing her unrepentant killer. But everyone is granted their given moment of fully-engaged attention, and in her very disposability Delia seems to drag an entire implied world of arbitrary injustice down with her. At her deathbed, as at Jesse's, McTell approaches transcendence through (as Manny Farber wrote of His Girl Friday) a sort of voluptuous cynicism.

Delia, Delia, take no one's advice.
Last word I heard her say was: "Jee-zus Christ!"


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.