Last Wednesday I went to Anthony Dean Griffey’s Herbst Theater recital, featuring songs related to the American South, which had been rescheduled from January. Perhaps due to the rescheduling there were a number of empty seats in the theater. I sat in the front row and had no one around me, which is frankly my ideal though it is no doubt disappointing to both the artists and the presenters, though I’m not sure what they really expect when they start shows in the middle of the week at 8:00 – you get the addicts like me, but I know a number of potential attendees who had to get up and work the next morning and therefore had just gone home after work. I mean, I too had to be at work early the next morning, and was suffering from a nasty cold besides, but as I said, I’m an addict, and addicts are hopeless.
The evening got off to a good start, with the sound of a fiddle offstage. Paul Brown entered playing, dressed all in black, followed by Griffey, also in formal concert attire, which was sometimes a bit incongruous during the folk songs. Nonetheless these songs are a great fit for Griffey; it would be easy to imagine that in a different time and place his sweet but strong tenor would become a mainstay of some small southern town’s social and religious life. The four songs in this set – Wayfaring Stranger, Little Birdie, Jack of Diamonds, and Cumberland Gap – seemed like the fountain of old-style country music, with their hope for a better life hereafter, their ache over lost love, their ironic celebration of destructive vices such as drinking and gambling, and their good-humored, brave approach to lives of relentless hardship.
Brown played the banjo as well as the fiddle for these songs, and then he left never to return, which was odd and disappointing, since I had enjoyed his contribution so much. The rest of the program was accompanied by Warren Jones on piano. Griffey announced that there was a change in the program; instead of the set of Griffes songs, he would sing a song by Leonard Bernstein (I don’t remember which one, other than that it had “simple” in the title; it’s not listed on the San Francisco Performances site) and some of Copland’s Traditional Songs – the Boatman’s Dance, the Dodger, and Simple Gifts. I was disappointed by this unexplained switch because I had never heard the Griffes’s songs and I’m not a particular fan of Bernstein and, at this point, would happily go a decade or two without having to hear those Copland songs again. I’m finding his Americana period less and less engaging. Griffey did a fine job with them. He’s a fairly bulky man but he moves easily and acted out the Boatman’s dance. Jones seemed at times overemphatic and at others (as at the end of Simple Gifts) to fade out in an odd way.
Griffey then left the stage and Jones spoke a bit about how much he enjoyed coming back to San Francisco, where he used to live. He sketched the life of Griffes, an American composer whose short life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as did his music, which Jones described as “both impressionistic and expressionistic,” which was an apt description of the attractive piece he played, the Barcarolle, Op 6 No 1.
The houselights came up after that, the backdoors were opened, and the audience started getting up for the intermission, but then the houselights went out again and after an odd few moments Griffey and Jones came back on stage, where they had to wait for everyone to reassemble and quiet down. Then they performed the two Barber songs that ended the first half, Sleep now and I hear an army.
Then we had the real intermission, during which I saw the Opera Tattler, resplendent in appropriate red, white, and blue. The second half was a new song cycle by Kenneth Frazelle, Songs in the Rear View Mirror. Frazelle, a native of North Carolina, was inspired by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the famous James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration, and by the photographs of William Christenberry, an Alabama native who would return year after year to photograph the same sites – an old green warehouse, evangelical signs – under their varying conditions. His photographs never include people, according to Frazelle, who spoke briefly as the second half opened. Frazelle was quite engaging and modest, but I found the ten-song cycle, despite some strong points, a bit unsatisfying.
Some of Christenberry’s memorable pictures (he was apparently one of the first to photograph the south in color, and he used it to striking effect) were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, but then for some songs we had nothing. The opening songs are mostly nostalgic and pastoral in feel. Frazelle, who took the precaution during his talk of making sure we knew what kudzu was, had already told us that song number 4 (called Kudzu), compared the voracious and invasive vine to a certain type of person. It was a funny song, which provided a nice variant in the cycle’s texture and feel, but I thought it went on a bit too long after its point was clear.
This was followed by the song I found most deeply touching, Unmarked Grave. I’ll just quote Frazelle's lyrics here in their entirety because they get to the point faster than my description would:
She made flowers out of egg cartons
Yellow, pink, and lavender Styrofoam she saved.
“Makes no difference who’s buried there,
Everybody deserves something on their graves.”
First we saw the photograph, a close-up of the flowers, bright and ingeniously made though a bit tacky, and then we were brought up short by their down-to-earth memorial purpose, which seemed to encompass both an almost primitive need to placate the dead and the most profoundly sophisticated honoring of all forgotten and dishonored human life.
I also liked Song 7, Road Signs, quite a bit, which alternated between the cries of a southern preacher, possibly on the car radio (“Oh, I believe in Jesus, do you?” – Griffey was completely convincing as the preacher as he fervently sang those repeated lines) and signs offering various foods (pickled pig’s feet, boiled peanuts, peaches) for sale at roadside stands. At the end of the song the accompanist is the one who demandingly turns to us and breaks his usual silence, with the final repetition of “I believe in Jesus – do you?” Any mention of southern religion is going to get a laugh from a certain type of audience, but I thought the song, which certainly had its comic side, was also powerful and unsettling in the manner of Flannery O'Connor.
OK, here’s where it all went off the rails for me. Song 8, In the night, is about child abuse. It seemed completely out of the blue (though reading the lyrics on the train ride home, I saw that there had been earlier mentions of an irresponsible father). Nabokov’s novel Lolita is usually considered the ultimate example of this sort of story, but Nabokov bravely explored the subject with a subtlety and irony not usually found in what have come to seem ritualistic tales of cruel fathers and their innocent victims.
I have no idea if this material is autobiographical, and the very fact that the audience inevitably wonders if the artist really is the victim of sexual abuse is one of my major objections to its use: its interest is basically prurient. It also is, as usually presented, and as presented here, completely undramatic yet coercive, since there’s really only one possible reaction – sympathy with the victims and loathing of those who abuse them. In fact it feels heartless even to discuss such a possibly autobiographical element in aesthetic terms (“yes, I’m sure your suffering is terrible, but honestly . . . it’s a bit hacky as well”), but the undoubted sincerity of all the artists involved doesn’t mean they’re exempt from being judged as artists (that is, in aesthetic terms, in the widest possible sense).
I don’t know why child abuse has become such a popular plot device in the past few years – hysterical compensation by a society that otherwise heedlessly sexualizes and exploits children? a pervasive fear and resentment of male sexuality? pace Freud, perhaps it really is something that happens frequently, only we can finally mention it out loud? the increasing substitution of melodramatic "human interest" for artistic values? maybe it’s just one of the memes of our time? – but my heart sinks whenever it appears. Yeah, I feel callous even describing it that way, but there it is. I’m sure this song was for some the emotional highpoint of the cycle, but I found it generic, despite the commitment of the performers and the attractions of the fluttery, mysterious music.
As an encore, Griffey sang This Little Light of Mine, which would have been the perfect end to what I thought the evening was going to be, an exploration of the music of the American south. If the evening wasn’t quite what I expected, well, neither is America.