It would be easy to listen to ex-Harry Pussy guitar master Bill Orcutt’s new album A History Of Every One without noticing that it features a “version” of Disney’s saccharine, bullshit nocturne “When You Wish Upon A Star” right next to one of “Black Betty,” which Alan Lomax claimed was about the whip used in southern prisons. Orcutt’s mesmerizing runs on the fretboard obscure the fact that he is juxtaposing the feel-good, racist schlock-piece “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” with one of the most sexually-charged, transgressive songs in the Delta blues songbook, “Black Snake Moan.” It even closes with a minstrel song, the typical lyrics of which are about slaves lamenting their dead master. Without titles, you might never recognize that this is a work of reinterpretation; even with them, the songs are nigh unrecognizable, as Orcutt fills the huge amounts of negative space in each with a flow of notes of his own making. In the process, he expands their ruptures, breaking each melody into infinitesimal pieces, coding each part into a new narrative.
To the casual listener, folk music in the West seems to largely revolve around standards, old songs that are recycled over and over, fully formed but constantly reappearing in new voices and slight variations. Closer inspection reveals that folk music is more about borrowing. What would (once?) be considered outright plagiarism in pop music, such as using the melody of one song to create another or covering a song but inserting a verse of your own in, is common across folk music. Orcutt here absorbs more than just the standards of folk music or the tropes of particular song styles to refashion. Disney is one of his biggest targets, but he also steals a fight song from Harvard and Irving Berlin’s hit for Bing Crosby, “White Christmas” (the perhaps accidental racial connotations of which must be obvious next to “Zip A Dee Doo Dah”). Folk culture is a kind of compost heap of images, signifiers, and forms, all of which have proven their potency by their usage in the past. But among that heap is much that is rotten. No matter for Orcutt, who had been dealing with the rotten in noise for years prior in Harry Pussy. This material is just as fertile for his guitar work as any other, and by churning the pile, he brings these pieces of history out from the invisibility where they had festered ever since their last audition.
It’s not just Orcutt’s re-composition, but his inimitable, sputtering style that transforms these pieces into something new. It’s as if, during “When You Wish Upon A Star,” his guitar is a demanding child who won’t allow Jiminy Cricket to finish before questioning him, arguing with him, and drawing out a confession that the whole sentiment is bullshit. A History Of Every One is totally unlike the soothing, finger-picked remembrances of Six Organs of Admittance or James Blackshaw, and it doesn’t feature the sunny, back-porch vibes of much of John Fahey’s work. The emotional content of this album is raw, which is only suitable to the subject matter. Orcutt’s strumming style is a process of tension and release, and the runs he plays are more like bursts than flowing waters. His wordless yowling peeks through the mix at opportune moments. A History Of Every One is Orcutt’s apology for playing the blues, and the raw energy and sincerity it contains is half of his explanation.
The other half is a kind of admission, through the song choices and juxtapositions, that although blues-as-history is open to everyone just as Disney and Christmas are, blues-as-music is specific to a culture of the oppressed in which Orcutt can only partially partake. Beginning with a song like “Solidarity Forever” drives home this idea, presenting the struggle instead through labor groups. With many of the songs on A History Of Every One, though, it is difficult to parse where Orcutt is joking, where he is making serious comment, or where he is even using the song at all. Regardless, by negating their lyrics and filling every available space in the narrative with ruptures of melody, he refigures each piece into something new, devoid of any but emotional input. In this respect, the blues songs are more ready to accept him. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bring Me My Shotgun” is among the most vital pieces on the album, primarily because the song is already so full of sublimated emotion. For many of the others, Orcutt has to blast them into oblivion or coax them into revealing their mysteries through his idiosyncratic style.
“If you’re playing any kind of folk music and you’re not a member of that particular group, then it’s problematic,” Orcutt said in an October 2011 interview with The Wire. So what does it mean that this album is titled A History Of Every One? At first glance, this seems to be a suggestion of a grand narrative that organizes history into a story of all peoples. Orcutt’s reorganization isn’t so grandiose. Rather, it’s a personal history, a history of every one, that is, his own history. Later in that same interview, Orcutt said that he can’t justify his blues-playing, that his access to the blues comes from listening to records. A History Of Every One also suggests that many other sources have influenced his work and folk culture, for better or for worse. None of these admissions contain justifications or excuses. These songs are history, and have now become it again, renewed.