Hillbillies and Bad Seeds 

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music
Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg
Simon & Schuster

It's not surprising that an epic-length biography of The Carter Family -- the inimitable progenitors of 20th-century American folk and country music -- would appear in the wake of the hugely popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its soundtrack.

But whether it's the cycle of trends, or just a collective nostalgia that has driven this resurgence of interest in folk and old-time country music, two things are for sure: The Carter Family's place in the history of American music is seminal and their story biblical.

Genesis: A.P. (Pleasant) Carter is gifted with little but a talent for absent-minded wanderings and a beautiful bass voice with a shimmering tremolo.

One day, during one of his many wanderings on Clinch Mountain, he meets his reluctant bride-to-be, 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, when he hears "Engine 143" floating down the mountain in her haunting alto voice.

Some 11 years after they're married in 1915, Sara's cousin Maybelle, a fast-living and easygoing self-taught guitar virtuoso, marries A.P.'s brother Eck, and moves just down the valley from the elder Carter's home. Before long, A.P., Sara and Maybelle's frequent porch sessions are turning the ears of neighbors and passers-by. Their harmony is undeniable.

When a Mr. Ralph Peer shows up in Bristol, Va. in 1927 looking for "hillbilly" acts to make orthophonic records, A.P., Sara and Maybelle pack up their car and head for as unlikely a date with fame as anyone has ever had.

From early recording methods to the birth of radio to the Grand Ole Opry, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Zwonitzer and Hirshberg's biography takes you through the fascinating history of roots music in the back seat of the family that defined it.

Though the tone of Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? starts out sounding a bit like an episode of "VH-1 Behind the Folk" and often suffers from an overload of minutiae, documentarian Mark Zwonitzer and his writing partner Charles Hirshberg eventually settle down into a less sensational tone that entertains while doing more than justice to The Carter Family legacy.

Rimbaud Complete
Arthur Rimbaud

Translated by Wyatt Mason
Everyman Library

Tradutore, traditore goes that Latin phrase that means, more or less, translators are jerks. Though this isn't always the case, Wyatt Mason's flatfooted Rimbaud Complete definitely gives Rimbaud's poetry another unneeded stab in the back.

Without getting overly into the many ethical and logistical philosophies that translators and readers of translations must inevitably confront, let's just say that there are three categories of poetry translation:

1). Literal (just plug it into the Google translator, baby).

2). Liberal (make some doomed attempt at translating the musical qualities of the poetry while remaining faithful to the sense of the poem).

3). Poetic (get out your poetic license and start wielding it!).

Because of the infinite possibilities of language, and the infinite difficulties of conveying or containing those possibilities across languages, all are doomed to failure, few are up to the task, and even fewer up to the always daunting enterprise of failing Rimbaud with English feet.

Sadly, though he does add to the dialogue and does a whole bunch of admirably tedious scholarship, Mason's translations just don't clear the high mark set by Louise Varese, whose "liberal" translations of A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat are the undisputed heavyweight greats.

Here are three different translators' versions of a crucial passage from The Drunken Boat to illustrate my point:

Sweeter than sour apples are to infants
Was the green water drunk by my pine hull,
Rudder and anchor were washed away: I was cleansed,
Rinsed of stains, vomit and blue wine.

Thereafter I bathed in the Poem of the Sea
Milky with reflected stars, devouring blue and green;
A drowned sailor sometimes floated by
Like some pale apotheosis, or flotsam lost in thought.


Mason has a few inspired moments that reach the elusive harmonic balance between music and sense, but now compare it to Varese:

Sweeter than sour apples to a child
Green waters seeped through all my seams
Washing the stains of vomit and blue wine
And swept away my anchor and my helm

And since then I've been bathing in the Poem
Of star-infused and milky Sea
Devouring the azure greens, where, flotsam pale
A brooding corpse at times drifts by; ...


How can you even compare the clunking and stilted "Thereafter I bathed in the Poem of the Sea" with "And since then I've been bathing in the Poem"? Perhaps the disparity can be illuminated by Varese's statement: "For me translating Rimbaud started as a very private and infinite affair -- something to wake up in the middle of the night about for the rest of my life" as compared to Mason's long list of academic credentials.

Sorry, but passion trumps a Ph.D. every time. Now look at Ted Berrigan's "poetic license" version of the same passage:

Sweeter than sour apples flesh to boys
The brine of brackish water pierced my hulk
Cleansing me of rot-gut wine and puke
Sweeping away my anchor in its swell

And since then I've been bathing in the poem
Of the star-steeped milky flowing sea
Devouring great sweeps of azure green
Watching flotsam, dead men, float by me ...

And Berrigan didn't even know French! You make the call.


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