My Gray Goose Chase

I will restrict my illustrations here to two songs, differing in as many aspects of provenance as any two folksongs in the language can differ, and almost certainly not related through diffusion, yet remarkably similar in their use of an indestructible and gigantic bird for symbolic expression of social protest.

~~ John Greenway, “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad”

It’s funny what might get under my skin, leading me on a – dare I say it – wild goose chase. Even funnier, where that chase might lead me.

TNY published Lethem’s “The Gray Goose” a few weeks ago. It referenced the folk song of the same name, appearing in the story first as a children’s song by Burl Ives and a few pages later in a Greenwich Village club, as laden with significance for the main character: her mother, as a member of the American communist party, had taught her the goose represented the struggling middle class, a tidbit with which she later impressed her friends at the club.

I was curious at the time, so I began my wild – or rather, gray – goose chase. I discovered the Burl Ives 1959 version was a cover of a 1935 Leadbelly recording (the two knew each other and sometimes performed at the same folk concerts), back when white artists frequently “covered” black songs to bring them to wider audience rather than in the current sense of simply re-recording a song. I still wanted to know more about the origins of “The Gray Goose” folk tune: was it a spiritual? A children’s song? Something older? Was it American, European, or something entirely different?

The most promising source of information I could find, based on a footnote to a footnote, seemed to be an elusive article titled “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad” by one John Greenway, published in a now-defunct journal, Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1954. How does one find a copy of such an article?

I called the Portland Public Library. I felt a little silly – it seemed like a mission that was doomed to fail – but they have this “Ask a Librarian” number, so I asked a librarian if they had some magical way to find a 60-year-old article from a Kentucky journal out of print for 30 years.

They did.

It would take a couple of weeks, I was told, since the University of Maine at Orono (about 135 miles away) was in summer session. Three days later, a PDF arrived by email. I love my library. I love all libraries. And I love librarians.

So what did folklorist Dr. Greenway have to say?

He starts with “The Cutty Wren,” an English folk song unrelated to “The Gray Goose” but similar in some ways as it served as a medieval protest song associated with the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, protesting feudalism and the abuses of the landlords, and, like “The Gray Goose,” features an undistinguished bird elevated to great status. Greenway considered “The Cutty Wren” not in the American culture at the time of the article; today, it’s listed Mark Gregory’s worldwide database “Union Songs” and was included on the 1960s album “Songs of Protest” by the British folk group led by Ian Campbell. John Greenway didn’t know, in 1954, that the 60s were about to happen. And the internet, well, he would’ve laughed.

What does “The Cutty Wren” have to do with “The Gray Goose”? Not much, really, other than they both involve less-than-glorious birds as symbols of resistance to oppression:

A somewhat similar area of protest to that out of which the song came, however, existed in the South during slavery days, and still exists in rural prison camps. In both cases a defiant society or group, living in an environment of deprivation, restriction, and oppression was denied free channels of expression; such conditions inevitably produced songs in which protest is concealed from those outside the group by symbolism, allegory, and other devices. During ante-bellum times the slaves had a semi-religious song ultimately derived in form from the African “call and response” group singing, which may have begun something like this modern descendant:

George went a huntin,’
O Mount Zion
He kill a eagle,
O Mount Zion.

and went on to tell of the difficulty George’s mama had in cooking the bird; the last time the singer saw him, “he war flotin’ down de riber.”

This, then, seems to be the song that developed into “The Gray Goose.”

He further relates the symbol of the goose more generally to “Ol’ Sis Goose” – when the goose goes to court, she finds the judge, attorneys, and jury are all foxes – depicting an overt kind of racial injustice: “the Negro in a white man’s court is I pretty much the same predicament.” Greenway then traces the Goose through Leadbelly, who, having spent eleven years in Southern chain gangs, saw it as a way of honoring the prisoner who survived.

Greenway is uncertain about the reason the goose itself was selected as the bird of choice for this symbolism, however:

Just why the goose should be accepted by the Southern Negro as a symbol for his people is not easy to see (although the goose is a similar symbol in folklore from Finno-Ugric to Hindu mythology); perhaps because of its very homeliness, perhaps because he recognizes in the goose certain qualities that we city-dwellers do not see. I felt a hint of this two weeks ago when the papers reported the incident of two wild geese vainly attempting to help a broken-winged companion into the air. Perhaps the goose has a highly-developed sense of social consciousness.

Sentences like that final one make me very glad I called my library to obtain this article.

He further traces the evolution, or, in some cases, devolution, of folk songs: some lose their symbolism, and thus their meaning, and become children’s nonsense songs. He specifically points out the modification of “The Gray Goose” that replaces “Lawd, lawd, lawd” with “Ho holly Ho” and additional “repetitive nonsense;” it’s interesting I can’t find that lyric online, while the original version – the version Leadbelly and Burl Ives sang – is plentiful. That feels like a kind of small justice to me.

Now – what does any of this have to do with the Lethem story?

Miriam, the daughter in the story, is somewhat dismissive of the song when she hears it in the club, since she remembers it as a children’s song. She does remember, however, that her mother had a Marxist interpretation for it, and thus impresses her friends with that knowledge. Greenway acknowledges that “many songs of social and political significance have a disconcerting habit” of losing their meaning between the fields and the nursery, but here the meaning was significantly preserved, if lightened by Ives’ delivery. Miriam’s mother, furthermore, adds her interpretation to keep the meaning with the song – if a different meaning than it had when Leadbelly sang it, which was very different from the “George Went a Huntin’” that originated in slavery.

In the interview that accompanied the story, Lethem made some references to the song. He remembered the song with some mixed feelings, and so Miriam came to see it as “a sort of trapdoor into the mingled shame and pride of a family’s political past.” Thanks to Greenlaw, I have a better idea of the origins of the song, but Miriam, at 16, thinks her mother’s interpretation, Burl Ives’ version, is the original one. It’s possible, given that the novel follows her to other protests and revolutions and uprisings, that the song remains the same for her, a more general symbol. Or perhaps she, too, discovers more about it: Lethem mentions in passing “an Irish-American folksinger discovering he’s no Bob Dylan” but it’s not clear whether or not that is part of the novel.

Is it ok to co-opt a song? To change the symbolism for a different purpose, another oppressed group? What if we allow the goose to be more generous – to represent anyone who is downtrodden, oppressed, struggling, staying the course, resisting destruction, and believes that release, flight, freedom is possible? The origins of the song in slavery, America’s seminal injustice, merely provides the bass line. The harmonies and melodies of racial injustice, prison inequalities, socioeconomic disadvantage, discriminations based on gender, religion, sexual preference, can create a refreshed, not a new, song.

Is this co-option, or growth, a sign of life, of universality? It depends. I think it’s important for the co-opters to acknowledge the original origins, which is not something Miriam or her mother do in the story. Perhaps they (or the Irish-American Dylan wannabe) encounter it later. Or perhaps the song fades from the novel – titled Dissident Gardens – with this section.

But The Gray Goose will fly on, regardless.

Jonathan Lethem: “The Gray Goose” from TNY, 5/6/13

TNY Story Art - Weegee photo

TNY Story Art – Weegee photo

Precisely to the same degree that she’d been mothered in disappointment, in embittered moderation, in the stifling of unreasonable expectations, in second-generation cynicism toward collapsed gleaming visions of the future, the morose detachment of the suburbs, Miriam was in fact a Bolshevik of the five senses. Her whole body demanded revolution, her whole character screamed to see high towers raised up and destroyed. Every yearning Rose might ever have wished to dampen had been doubly instilled in her daughter. For all her quashing of utopias, Rose had merely been proving Miriam’s innate suspicion that life was elsewhere.

In a nutshell: If Tessa Hadley had grown up Jewish in Brooklyn, her Stella would’ve been Lethem’s Miriam.

Like the Hadley excerpts (and yes, this is an excerpt, backstory for the novel that isn’t here), I thought the parts were greater than their sum. I loved some individual scenes, and there’s prose and imagery to die for (like Rose’s early miscarriage: “… the pregnancy lapsed, in the privacy of night, leaking out of Rose in gobs and streams…”), but in the end, it’s another teenage rebellion story, with generational echoes of Rose’s backstory. As I understand it from Lethem’s Page-Turner interview, the novel follows Miriam to sites of revolution beyond Brooklyn. I can see how this section would be great background for that.

We start off with backstory (to the backstory) about the mom, Rose, who bonded with another Communist at a cell meeting, and, despite their differences (he the urbane German Jew vs. she the Polish Brooklyn variety) married him after she missed her third period. One miscarriage and four years later Miriam was born; shortly thereafter, Dad, more Communist that Jew and not Brooklyn at all, fled the family to return to Germany:

In 1948, the year Miriam’s father left, she was given an album. Last Sunday mornin’, Lord, Lord, Lord! Oh my daddy went ahuntin’, Lord, Lord, Lord. …The way her mother handled the album reminded Miriam of the Jewish ritual actions Rose despised… really any time Miriam had ever witnessed a Jew handling papers of importance or turning the pages of a book as if unworthy, grateful, ennobled, discreetly defiant, all at once. Rose opened her political books in this way.

The folksong “The Gray Goose,” sung by Burl Ives, plays a strong thematic role throughout this excerpt (I wonder if it persists through the entire novel). It’s interesting how we co-opt symbols. It seems “The Gray Goose” was originally a black southern folk song, recorded by Leadbelly, and had strong anti-slavery connotations: a footnote crediting John Greenway’s journal article “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad” points out “the indestructible figure of the Gray Goose who though shot, picked, pickled, and boiled, etc., couldn’t be stopped. At the end of the folksong, the Gray Goose flies away from its tormenters and escapes to freedom.” And in case you don’t have your copy of Southern Folklore Quarterly #18 from 1954 lying around, my library is obtaining the article for me from UMaine in Orono, which shows you just what a public library can do just for the asking. It’ll take a few weeks, though (they’re in summer session and nobody’s home), so I’ll have to return to it at that time. Addendum: the article arrived faster than expected; details here.

Given Rose’s early enthusiasm for communism, it’s interesting she treats Burl Ives with such reverence, as he was one of those who “named names” to save his career. Then again, given the far greater betrayal of her husband’s abandonment of the family, it’s probably just a footnote to Rose’s conversion from ideologue to bitter cynic.

In any case, explaining the Bolshevik interpretation of “The Gray Goose” is Miriam’s way, ten years later in 1956, of establishing her communist roots to her date and her more desirable target, a Columbia student to whom she hopes to lose her virginity. The twists the tale takes along the way to this goal are pretty hilarious, but given the multisensory nature of Miriam’s rebellion, I was most interested by the subway scene in which she initiates the Columbia boy, already suffering from “boroughphobia – fear of Brooklyn” – to the best curve on the I. R. T.:

“It’s the only place in the system where you can watch the front cars of the train you’re on pull into a station from the rear cars,” Miriam said. Hammering the point home, she felt like Rose. Like she’d picked up Rose’s hammer of personality to impress the Columbia boy, to bonk against his broad, pretentiously daft forehead. (How could you go to so much trouble to arrive in New York City, as the throngs at Columbia and Barnard had, and not ride the system?) As if Miriam’s life-exuberance pointed back toward Rose’s punitive ferocity, just the way the I.R.T. screamed in the direction of home.

No matter where you go, there you are. It’s a nice way to keep the relationship between Rose and Miriam in the forefront, echoing Rose’s relationship with her husband as detailed in the first part of the excerpt. While Miriam’s attempt to be grown-up at 16 by going to a cozy Greenwich Village student hangout and losing her virginity, she’s got that same mix of boldness and fear that comes with all teenagers in varying degrees. She thinks of her Columbia man in terms of passing muster with Rose, then shakes off that thought as irrelevant: too late, we all saw the remaining apron string that, as hard as she tries to deny it, still remains her guideline, even if just to show her the path she wants to rebel against.

Maybe it isn’t Tessa Hadley at all; maybe it’s just the universality of teenager separation anxiety, the love/hate push-pull. Whatever it is, it’s probably, as I said, a great foundation for the novel. But no one ever told the realtor, “This is my dream house,” after just seeing the foundation.

Jonathan Lethem: “My Internet” from The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012

New Yorker art by Dan Winters

New Yorker art by Dan Winters

Yet lately I’ve felt the urge for a deeper foray, the need for a more profound exclusion, and it is this which has led me to the creation of an Internet entirely of my own.

Let’s face it – without Jonathan Lethem’s name on this, it’d never get out of a slushpile. It’s a first-person explanation to the reader by a slightly cracked (to use the term Lethem uses in his interview) narrator, giving the history of his own private Internet. Which is a subset of the exclusive 100-person Internet set up back in the day in anticipation of Amazon and LOLCats. Then our crackpot discovered the 100 persons were, just like on Facebook, not really 100 persons. Wow, does that sort of thing really happen? ;)

That’s an interesting concept, exclusion leading to isolation .And a bit of a mind-fuck, since an internet of one isn’t an internet at all. And it’s just a two-page story (TNY has made it exclusive to subscribers, but an anonymous blogger has posted it anyway; I’m curious to see what will happen if TNY or Jonathan Lethem ever catch on), highly readable. So I guess I can’t complain too much.

But the story is told, the idea covered, in the first paragraph, and there’s precious little development or supporting detail to hang your hat on. Is it a story, even a flash, to say “One day I did this because of that, and here’s a sketch of how and why, ain’t I clever?” Especially when the this and because of that aren’t all that controversial, in this era of spam filters and content-blockers.

I’ll think of this as the amuse bouche for the Science Fiction issue. Next?

Jonathan Lethem: “The Porn Critic” from The New Yorker

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

The permanent mystery was how much you seemed to know before you knew anything at all. Or maybe the permanent mystery was how stupid you could be and yet how you clung to evidence that your stupidity knew things you didn’t.

I’m always confusing Jonathan Lethem with Joshua Ferris, in the same way I mix up my 6′s and 8′s or right and left – I just have to think about it for a second. Right, Lethem wrote As She Crawled Across The Table which I thoroughly enjoyed. I enjoyed this story, as well. It’s a bit disorienting since it’s set in the 90s, and while that shouldn’t make that much of a difference, it does seem quaint, now, to read about LPs and phonograph needles and video tapes.

I think it’d make a terrific sitcom episode. That’s not a slam; it’s a very visual story – the shelves, the facial expressions – with the kind of scene that I’d love to see in action rather than on the page. You can read it for yourself and see what I mean, it’s available online.

Kromer is looked at as “a saint of degeneracy” by his small cluster of friends, because of his job in a sex-toys shop. “A wizard salesman, Kromer switched on and demonstrated the range of speeds on any number of devices with a shame-dissolving forthrightness.” He also reviews porn for the shop newsletter, and right there, every MFA candidate for miles around is going to hone in on this story like a heat-seeking missile. He really doesn’t get why his friends view him as some kind of satyr; it’s just a job, like any other. He doesn’t like porn, he just analyzes and describes it for others, who might have certain, you know, requirements.

Greta, Invisible Luna, and Beautiful Renee visit his apartment, lured by the promise of pot, and he hopes to convince them he isn’t toxic, get rid of his troublesome reputation. Greta’s pretty much on board already (he’s been partying with her and her transsexual friends), and the other two, well, they seem to feel there’s safety in numbers. But he should’ve thought twice before inviting them in:

His apartment was a maze of stacked porn. The volume was staggering. The disarranged piles melded into a wallpaper of ludicrous font and slashes of pink, brown, and yellow flesh; though the job was chiefly a matter of inventorying characteristics, tabulating spurts and lashings, Kromer couldn’t get through the tapes fast enough. As invisible to him as familiar bookshelves would be to another, the accumulation tended to make a powerful impression on visitors.

What’s evident in this paragraph gets repeated throughout the story: Lethem does a terrific job of talking about porn without sounding pornographic about it. And this is what Kromer has been saying all along: it’s just a job.

Kromer was just dropping the needle onto a Cowboy Junkies LP when Renee screeched, “I feel like I’m sitting inside a copy of ‘Guernica’!”
“Sorry?” Kromer said.
“I can’t let my eyes rest anywhere,” Renee said. “It’s like a meat shop – carnage everywhere.”
Greta’s eyes widened, which put them at half mast. “More like Francis Bacon,” she murmured. Greta had been an art-history major at college. “Really, if you squint, it’s like we’re in a Bosch painting.”
“‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,’” Kromer said. It seemed a calming phrase to utter, akin to saying the words. “The Peaceble Kingdom” or “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” or like the narcotic tone of the LP, which presently purred, “Heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to me when you smile…”

“If these walls could talk, they’d moan,” Greta said.
“I think they might be screaming at me, ” Renee said.

Someone’s got to find a way to work this into Portlandia.

Called upon to defend himself as a critic, he explains some of the fine points of different videos thrown at him. For example, “Bare Miss Apprehension” and sequels like “Bare Miss Adventure”:

…are “really just star vehicles for Jocelyn Jeethers. A picaresque structure, but charming. People like them, I mean. There’s a good focus on female autonomy -” Kromer stumbled on the proximity of this word to “anatomy”…

He goes on to credit the makers of “Social Hormones” as being known for “commitment to establishing character arcs and narrative causality.” On the other hand, “Anal Requiem 4: The Assmaid’s Tale” is “junk.” And, let me note here, in his Book Bench interview, Lethem acknowledges: “It has occurred to me that I’ll have to look Margaret Atwood in the eye again, in this world or the next.” I hope he’ll find an amused gleam there.

It struck him, too late, that he was attempting to demonstrate that he wasn’t a man from the moon by detailing the moon’s topology, cataloguing its hollows.

Poor Kromer, he just digs himself in deeper. Eventually, Beautiful Renee can’t take it any more, and she runs into the bathroom, sick:

Kromer’s special literacy was, it now seemed, something worse than a complete dead loss on the human scoreboard. It was positively toxic, able to compel vomit from gorgeous women.

There is a scene at the end that makes sense of all this (not to mention adds “I fucked for sturgeon” to the list of things I want to say someday, at the right time and in the right place), and it’s quite interesting how on second read it’s less a hilarious romp and more about Kromer’s keen psychological observations. We see what we want to see. And we have ways of protecting ourselves.

A fun story. And, if you wish, an interesting one.

And an aside: While prepping this post and the art. I almost went with the aforementioned Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” instead of the New Yorker illustration. But I received my semi-weekly copy of Shelf-Awareness which included some mention of Lethem’s library as captured in Leah Price’s Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, ((slide 4)), of which he says: “My books are always organized, arranged, and always being rearranged, too-a constant process. I tend to oscillate between alphabetical absolutism and imperatives of genre, subject, size, color, publisher-I don’t, for instance, ever like to see pocket-sized paperbacks with anything larger, and certain publishers have created spines so irresistibly lovely together that I’ve devoted sections to them, even when it busts authors I’ve got shelved elsewhere out of their alphabetical jail.” So, in a shelvish frame of mind, I went with the New Yorker art. If you like, you can visit the Amazon listing and Take a Look Inside to see additional Lethem shelving technique. But I didn’t see “Bare Miss Adventure” anywhere.