Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Blow-Up and Performance

The two films I most associate with the swinging 60s are Blow-Up (1966) and Performance (made in 1968, but not released until 1970). I didn’t realise, till I watched them again recently, how much, while being very different in feel, they had in common. While one is set at the height of London’s cultural moment, and the other feels very much in its aftermath, both feature an artist (a photographer in Blow-Up, a musician in Performance) experiencing a revitalisation of their art through contact with violence and crime.

Blow-Up starts with its unnamed photographer (played by David Hemmings) emerging from a doss house, having just spent the night as one of the homeless while secretly taking snapshots. This might be taken as showing dedication to his art and a worthy social responsibility, but soon feels like just one more stunt in a day full of quick photoshoots, impulse buys and throwaway ideas. The dismissive way he orders the clothes he wore in the doss house burned, and the way he skims the proofs of the photos, interested only in the superficial impact of the images, seems to imply how little he’s been touched by the experience. His one contact with a deeper relationship to art seems to be his painter neighbour, who’s at the opposite end of the impulsiveness scale, being quite capable of leaving a painting incomplete for years till he’s sure he knows how to finish it.

One of his many impulses leads the photographer to follow a couple into a park, taking surreptitious snaps. He’s spotted, and the girl of the couple tries to get the photos off him. Something about the situation — its apparent peacefulness compared to the rush of his creative life, the desperation of the girl, an intuition that there’s more to it than meets the eye — catches his imagination and he starts studying the photos, blowing up sections till he realises he may have been present at a murder attempt. For a moment, he’s elated, thinking his art has had a genuine effect on the world — it’s saved someone’s life! Then comes the realisation: he didn’t save a life at all. Instead, he failed to notice a successful murder taking place right before his eyes.

Performance is more ambiguous. It brings together two characters, both in need of a new sort of energy in their lives. One is Chas (played by James Fox), an East End gangster’s ‘Front Man’ who oversteps his bounds and has to go on the run; the other is Turner (Mick Jagger), a burned-out rock star hiding away in dishevelled Bohemian digs in Powis Square. It’s the meeting of these representatives of two very different undergrounds (the criminal and the countercultural) that revitalises both. Turner absorbs Chas’s gangster persona, and uses it to make contact with his musical ‘daemon’ once more; meanwhile, Chas has his ultra-macho self-image broken down to free his more feminine side.

In both films, a musical performance captures the mix of art and violence they’re heading towards: the Yardbirds playing ‘Train Kept A-Rolling’ in Blow-Up (with Jeff Beck rather self-consciously destroying a guitar and throwing its neck into the audience, waking them from catatonia into a scramble of violence), Mick Jagger singing the rather Dylanesque “Memo From Turner”, surrounded by naked gangsters, in Performance.

Both films end ambiguously. In Blow-Up, after realising he didn’t save anyone’s life at all, Hemmings’s character wanders in the park till he falls in with a group of feral street-performers, who set about an impromptu game of mimed tennis. Joining in — throwing back their non-existent ball when it’s knocked out of court — seems, somehow, to provide some sort of resolution to his story. In Performance things are even stranger, with Chas (either more in touch with his feminine side and a fuller human being, or simply stoned out on mushrooms) shooting Turner, then being taken outside by his gangster friends to meet a similar fate, where he reveals himself, in a brief glimpse, to in fact be Turner, or perhaps the both of them, melded into a Chas-Turner hybrid.

Both endings seem not so much to be interested in explaining or resolving the change that’s taken place in their characters, as wilfully defying any sort of interpretation at all. But the feeling, in both cases, is of a sort of rising above the action into an entirely new plane of meaning, an alchemical synthesis of the two worlds (art and violence) that have been polarised in each film’s preceding action. These endings defy rational explanation because that change, that revitalisation, can perhaps only come about through giving way to a wholly new logic.

Electric Eden by Rob Young

ElectricEdenFolk rock flourished in Britain between 1969 and 1972, a period I’ve become increasingly fascinated by, mostly because of the YA fiction of the time (Penelope Lively’s, most recently), and the telefantasy that followed soon after (The Changes, Children of the Stones, Sky, and so on). All of these shared an interest in British landscape and British folklore. Rob Young’s Electric Eden traces the history of the ‘electric folk movement’ throughout the twentieth century, from the moment Cecil Sharp began seeking out and transcribing folk songs in 1903, to their adoption by the political left as the authentic voice of the working classes in the 50s and early 60s, and then to their more individualistic use among the hippie generation that bridged the 60s and 70s.

In fact, there are a few parallels to be drawn between the development of folk music and children’s fantasy literature in the 20th century. In From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England, Colin Manlove characterises the kids’ fantasy of the 50s and early 60s as being ‘social in tendency, in that the story involved either fitting in with a given collective, or, in the more secure and conformist 1960s, making friends with often very different people or creatures’ — which could be compared to the contemporaneous socially-minded use of folk music by the left — while, in the 1970s, ‘the problem of identity in these fantasies becomes much more acute’, alongside, in some writers at least, ‘a desire to reconnect with the past and traditional values that are now more distant’. And it’s the individualism of folk music in its brief 60s/70s flourish that comes to the fore in Electric Eden, with so many different musicians using the same basic materials — the songs, ballads, dances and music of the pre-World War working classes — in so many different ways.

What nailed this parallel for me, though, was when Young says:

‘A significant portion of Britain’s cultural identity is built on a succession of golden ages… The ‘Visionary Music’ invoked in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future.’

Golden ages and secret gardens — this could be straight out of Humphrey Carpenter’s book about the ‘Arcadian’ writers of classic children’s fantasy, and their use of ‘travel between time zones’ and ‘retreat to a secret garden’ to reconnect with the ‘golden age’ of childhood.

Comus's First Utterance, one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Comus’s First Utterance (1971), one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Perhaps one key to why there was this sudden movement to rediscover (or remake) the traditions of the past at this time is down to the fact that the people doing the rediscovering/remaking were the children of the generation who’d lived through two World Wars. Perhaps there was a need to reach over the immediate, bloody past and mend the connection with whatever life had been like before those two horrific cataclysms, to find a way of dealing with a daily life in which you weren’t continually threatened by industrial levels of death. Folk music felt like a discovery to the rockers of the late 60s, something they could both participate in and make their own. (This could be a workable definition of what ‘folk’ music is — music that’s both participatory, and individually interpretable.) If nothing else, there was a lot more you could do if you were interested in folk music, as Electric Eden quotes folk musician Dave Arthur as saying:

‘So we were morris dancing, clog dancing, playing instrumental music, singing ballads and songs, researching, going off to manuscript collections and working on material, original stuff that nobody else was working on.’

Dave Arthur was married to Toni Arthur, later a presenter on Play School and Play Away, and the pair recorded several folk albums, including Hearken to the Witches Rune in 1970/1971, a collection of witchy-themed folk songs (including ‘Alison Gross’ — about the ‘ugliest witch in the north country’ — ‘The Standing Stones’, and ‘The Fairy Child’), which had an excerpt from the Wiccan ‘Witch’s Chant’ printed on the sleeve.

There seems to have been a strong connection between folk music and something darker, or at least weirder. When Cecil Sharp first saw morris dancing in 1899, Rob Young says, the:

‘…sheer otherness of the display entranced him — it seemed to appear from the darkest, least conspicuous corners of English provincial life, and to be innately understood by the people who practised it.’

As Young says:

‘Even to dip a toe into the world of folklore is to unearth an Other Britain, one composed of mysterious fragments and survivals…’

Meanwhile, back in the early 70s, folk horror had its own brief efflorescence, with Play For Today Robin Redbreast showing on 10th December 1970, Blood on Satan’s Claw out in cinemas in 1971, and of course the folk-horror-musical The Wicker Man in 1973.

DoctorWho_Daemons

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor captured by sinister morris dancers (are there any other sort?), in The Daemons (1971)

And then it all ended. 1972 was a ‘reckoning year… a time of structural adjustment in the rock economy’:

‘The inescapable truth was that if you were still making Albion-centric, historically resonant folk-rock after 1974, then the zeitgeist had deserted you.’

Why did it end? Was the search for a new identity successful, were all problems resolved? Or was this particular solution limited to the one post-War generation’s brief coming of age? Young puts forward the idea that Thatcher’s government deliberately set out to provide a new, more modern self-image for Britain, taking it away from dreams of the countryside to something more solidly urban and suburban, but he says a similar thing about Harold Wilson’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1963, too:

‘…the speech signalled a new British self-consciousness as a metropolitan society whose successful destiny lay in skewering the balance towards its urban population and industrial prowess.’

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Sandy Denny’s post-Fairport Convention band’s first (1970) album

On the other hand, perhaps it was simply that the connection to a more peaceful, pre-war ‘golden age’ just couldn’t work in the late 1970s and 80s, or indeed in any globally-connected age, where it was impossible to ignore wars in other countries, terrorism, industrial unrest, rising unemployment, and the renewed threat of nuclear war. The world-warding barriers around one’s country retreat were too thin.

But the visionary ‘golden age’ aspect of folk music didn’t entirely disappear. Young traces its spirit in the work of a number of artists in the following years (culminating in the very un-folky electronica of the Ghost Box label in the 2010s). Perhaps, then, it’s similar to what happened to the ghost story, as presented in Julia Briggs’ study, Night Visitors, and the real oddity is not why folk rock’s popularity so suddenly waned, as why a minority interest, deeply meaningful to only a few, flared up into such brief but bright cultural relevance, and became, for even so short a period, as popular as it did.