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The Anthology and Carbine Williams

Banjo and rifle


OK, I'm officially a Turner Classic Movies fan.

Lately, movies hardly seem worth watching if Robert Osborne isn't there, just before and after, to give a cheery commentary about them. Bruno could be OK, but I'll wait until it comes to TCM so Osborne can tell me who ALMOST played Bruno before they finally cast Sacha Baron Cohen.

More seriously, the relentless march of old films has mattered to my development as a cultural historian. I live much of my life in a pre-WWII "immersion program" of my own design, and it helps that movies carry a lot of dense and very palatable cultural information. 

Consider the relatively obscure Jimmy Stewart movie Carbine Williams — a biopic about an inventor who helped create the M1 carbine rifle, a standard gun used in WWII.

Aside from this seemingly unpromising subject, TCM's viewer guide said that Williams was a bootlegger in the 1920's and created his invention while in a North Carolina prison. I figured hillbilly stringband music had to appear somewhere, right? 

Also, the movie was released in 1952, the same year Folkways Records released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Maybe the movie would shed light on ... say, the prevailing attitudes about southern Appalachian culture that greeted The Anthology upon its release.

I hunkered down to watch TCM's broadcast. What blew my mind turned out to be the way the filmmakers tried to compensate for the dry subject matter — how they tried to draw you into the biography. 

The film begins "now" — in 1952 — with the son of Carbine Williams having had schoolyard fights about his father's criminal past. The son is otherwise a typical 8-year-old of 1952, with the greasy kid stuff in his hair, the rolled up jeans, the horizontal-striped t-shirt.

To help the son understand him, Carbine Williams brings the boy to his old prison warden, who tells the boy — and us — the remarkable story of how a convict in his prison went on to win WWII for America.

In the end, the boy now understands and appreciates his father's experiences as a Prohibition outlaw, a convict in the Depression, and finally an engineer of the military-industrial complex that won the war. A heart-warming hug closes the film.

The appeal of the framing storyline is direct: the events of the first half of the century will be incomprehensible, or at least misunderstood, by the baby-boom generation. The movie proposes and fulfills a dream that the catastrophic experiences of two World Wars and the Depression (if not the fiasco of Prohibition) could somehow be appreciated and acknowledged by the children of The New Prosperity.

That this yawning divide in experience could somehow be bridged someday was, and is, an entertaining fantasy.

About the musicians whose 1920's recordings were reissued in 1952 on The Anthology, Greil Marcus wrote:

In 1952 [they] were only twenty or twenty-five years out of their time; cut off by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and the Second World War and by a national narrative that never included their kind, they appeared now like visitors form another world, like passengers on a ship that had drifted into the sea of the unwritten. "All those guys on that Harry Smith Anthology were dead," Cambridge folkies Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney wrote in 1979, recalling how it seemed in the early 1960's, when most of Smith's avatars were very much alive. "Had to be."

The Anthology derived some of its power from exploiting the same radical break in memory that Carbine Williams uses as a dramatic frame. To young people the age of the Williams boy — that is, Bob Dylan's or Joan Baez's age — the world that created their parents and the recordings on The Anthology alike seemed about as distant in time and place as any world could.

At some level, the cataclysms of the first half of the century were not only events Carbine Williams witnessed, they were projects he undertook. As a suggested path for the boy himself to follow, his father's life could reasonably be seen as a nightmarish sentence.

Carbine Williams never hints at the possibility that the son might be less interested in the life his father had lived than in the world his father had created and would leave as the boy's inheritance. And in 1952, that world looked like an awfully mixed bag.

A lot baby boomers came to see the entertainment industry that produced Carbine Williams — the one that failed to anticipate their perspective — as a purveyor of bad dreams thin enough to be transparent. They were drawn to cultural alternatives that were more opaque and thus less easily churned out by the efficient new systems for the manufacture and distribution of culture.

The most committed Folk Revivalists of the early 1960's traded their father's M1 carbine rifle for their grandfather's banjo. Staging a kind of identity insurrection, kids like the Williams boy would try on identities that their fathers seemed to have abandoned to become architects of the Cold War — identities inspired by Woody Guthrie, Charlie Poole, Jessie James, or Henry Lee's jilted lover.

Or Harry Smith — whoever he was. His Anthology was like a Ouija board for receiving and sending messages from and to the millions of souls Carbine Williams and his invention had left for dead.

Some of the Williams boy's generation tried to reenact the Anthology's obsolete performances. Some tried to retrace the occult thinking that organized the collection. Many tried to discern, in the most obsolete songs they could find, the stories their fathers either didn't know or had decided not to pass along.


Williams and Hearst
Patty Hearst's famous rifle was an M1 carbine.