Music  |  Features

Bob, Ty Cobb, and the Macabre

August 27, 2009  |  5:38pm

A few random thoughts strung together by means of a forced rhyme …


The fact that Bob Dylan is recording a Christmas album is disconcerting. Rumor has it that Bob had his band listen to Andy Williams’ Christmas music for inspiration. This cannot turn out well. If the band manages to capture the schlockmeister’s uniquely saccharine approach, then the album will suck. And if they are unsuccessful, it’s still Bob Dylan singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This has got to be the most wrongheaded Dylan venture since Firesign Theater’s early ‘70s album Bob at the Met
. And that was an intentional parody.


Any time you can mix ghosts, baseball, and Bob Dylan into the same song, you're doing all right. That's what The Felice Brothers do on their song "Cooperstown" from their latest album Yonder Stands the Clock
.

It's hazy and indistinct, propelled by accordion wheezes and guitar strums, and those snarling Dylan words that are, impossibly, written and sung by somebody named Ian Felice. And like a lot of the songs that Dylan sings, it communicates a great deal without making a lot of literal sense. The ghost of Ty Cobb wanders the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. There's a church service, perhaps a funeral, going on. And then we're back in 1905, a young Ty Cobb on the basepaths, a young woman watching him from the stands. And from there it gets seriously weird and metaphysical.

For those who may not be familiar with the man, Ty Cobb may have been the greatest baseball player to ever play the game. And he was universally despised; a mean, contentious sonofabitch who never had a kind word for anybody, and who came into a base with spikes flying, determined to injure any poor schlep who happened to be between him and his goal. In the summer of 1905, his mother gunned down his father. Three weeks later, he played his first game for the Detroit Tigers. And he spent the next 21 years with a chip on his shoulder, daring anyone to stand in his way.

So a line like "he had a game like a war machine" sounds just about perfect to me, as does the line about the wolves that stand between first and third. I think I've been in that game. It's a great song; a fever dream of a bygone era, poetry excavated from the Georgia clay, simultaneously earthy and transcendent.


A few months ago I spent some time with guitar slinger and ace songwriter Dave Perkins, who is currently writing a book about Gothic Country, that strange and macabre mixture of Old Testament fire and brimstone, bad whiskey, loose women, and the intersection of backwoods theology and murder ballads. It's a potent and disturbing musical brew that has fueled everyone from Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes to The Louvin Brothers to Johnny Cash to Nick Cave to 16 Horsepower. And since then I've been burrowing in to this moving and disturbing genre. I'd love to know if anyone else is a fan.

The musical touchstones are as old as the traditional Appalachian ballads of Dock Boggs and Charlie Poole, but some of the more contemporary practitioners are The Handsome Family, 16 Horsepower, Johnny Dowd, Those Poor Bastards, Woven Hand, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Jay Munly, The Builders and The Butchers, Jim White, and The Blackeyed Susans. Anybody else follow these folks?

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