The anxiety of the folk musician

James Finch Jr.

James Finch Jr.

In The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, literary critic Harold Bloom postulated that artistic creation is essentially an act of misreading past influences, a process by which an author simultaneously absorbs and revolts against his or her literary forefathers.

The central idea of the anxiety of influence is an important one to consider, not only in literary circles but also in the context of music, for all music (as all art) must come to terms with the anxiety of influence. How could it not? After all, all musicians are interested in music, listen to music, study music and absorb music—so, obviously, when they go to write songs, symphonies, operas etc., they are operating from that body of learned knowledge, a body of knowledge essentially passed down from their musical forefathers. (Every punk band knows a Ramones song; every folk singer knows a Dylan song.)

Folk music, like all music, works from within this anxiety of influence. Take James Finch Jr., for example, an artist who performed last weekend at the Fox & Goose on a bill that also included Amber Padgett, SquishTheBadMan, Lee Bob Watson, Sandi Leeper and Sherman Baker. Finch’s set ended with the emblematic “Cornbread & Bourbon,” the title track from his current CD. The song is essentially a folk-music ballad of desperation and redemption and, as such, is a song squarely in a particular folk tradition. “All I’ve had to eat today has been cornbread and bourbon,” Finch sings, and the listener can either believe him or walk for the door; there’s no middle path around it.

This is, after all, what the anxiety of influence presents for the listener. The listener, like Finch, has read Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac and has listened to Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. The artistic tightrope lies in using those influences to create a bridge for the listener. The bridge acts as a ready access to that tradition and hence to the pit of despair outlined in the song. The artist, then, can act as a spiritual medium for the human experience.

Finch articulated this well when he stated, “There are points where tapping into that historical vein and expressing what’s happening here and there meet. Going back with it makes it more common. That’s one of the things that folk music can do—it’s common experience.” If you ask him, Finch will tell you that the day described in “Cornbread & Bourbon” is a real day and a real experience, but putting the experience in the particular terms of the song elicits a particular rural, American experience—and an experience that all Americans ultimately share (i.e., being so down in the dumps that even your dogs hate you).

Perhaps that’s ultimately what folk music is—a bridge from one experience (the here and now) to another (the there and then). The folk artist creates a bridge that makes the experience common, the connotation that creates the linkage, and the folk (you and I) who complete the process, interpreting it and either buying it or turning away.

Finch will be at Luna’s on July 11, with Watson and Rusty Miller.