Monday, June 09, 2008

Mama, trains, trucks, prison, gettin’ drunk... and Obama

There’s a very famous country song, made popular by David Allan Coe, called “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” (NOTE: That link is to a YouTube rendering of the song, which might be one of the weirdest things I've ever seen.) As Coe explains in the song, it was actually written by Steve Goodman (who also wrote Willie Nelson’s hit “City of New Orleans”) and in the instrumental break between the second and third verses of the recorded version, Coe talks over the music and tells the following story:

Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote this song, and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was NOT the perfect country and western song, because he hadn’t said anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk. Well, he sat down and wrote another verse to this song and he sent it to me, and after reading it I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song. And I felt obliged to include it on this album. The last verse goes like this here....

If you know the song, you know that the last verse includes all of the requirements. Goodman even throws in a couple of extras, like “rain” and a tragic death. (It’s the death of “Mama,” of course, who gets run over by a “damned old train.”) All in all, it’s pretty hard to argue with Coe’s assessment of the song as the “perfect country and western song.” Here, just click play below and listen to it yourself...

What I love about this little exchange between Goodman and Coe is that they acknowledge, first, there is something like a Formula to country music and, second, sometimes the fact that a song is completely formulaic is what makes it great. Of course, Goodman’s song isn’t completely formulaic, inasmuch as it also (implicitly) involves a reflection on the “Formula.” But it’s that very small tweaking of the Formula, without departing from the Formula in any dramatic way, that I think defines not only great country music, but more generally great “pop” music. (I’m using “pop” in the broadest possible way here. So I mean to refer to “popular” music of all genres, but especially the genres that have historically resonated the most with the (American) populace—country, rhythm & blues, rock n’ roll.) If you’ve never tried to write one of these songs yourself, let me tell you, it’s really, really hard to do.. which it doesn’t seem like it should be, since there’s practically a blueprint for how to do it. Yet, oddly enough, what makes it so hard to write one of these songs is the very existence of the Formula. If you depart too much from the Formula, then you cut the legs out from under the song and it can’t stand up on its own. If you stick to the Formula too closely, you end up with something either completely boring or completely plagiarized. You can only allow yourself a limited number of tweaks, and even the tweaks need to be, in their own way, formulaic.

I actually think that the same applies to political campaigns. There is a Formula for constructing a platform and a message and a political persona that will resonate with the American populace and, although it can be tweaked, it cannot be circumvented or disregarded. I don’t point this out as a way of advocating some kind of “pandering” politics, but only to say that I see an interesting parallel between the story of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and the Obama phenomenon. That is, Obama and his message are, in their own way, very formulaic... including even his emphasis on change (because, after all, it’s a change “we can believe in.”) If Obama were a country song, we could replace “mama, trucks, trains, prison and gettin’ drunk” with another set of completely elemental and equally formulaic political criteria, like “integrity, vision, change, more change, and not gettin’ drunk.” Just like a country song, he is in effect saying “come over here, listen to me, you’ll recognize what I’m saying because it’s stuff you already know, stuff you already think is important, stuff that sounds familiar because it’s the stuff you sit around your supper table and talk about, stuff about your life.” And, unlike HRC, he’s singing that pop song very well, because people are listening. The other parallel that I see is that Obama, like the Coe/Goodman song, is also reflective about the extent to which his allegiance to the Formula (and our insistence on that allegiance) is itself something that needs a subtle highlighting. So, there is a kind of critical reflection on the Formula that is built into the otherwise formulaic packaging of his message—it’s subtle, but it’s brilliant, and it is very, very hard to do. Obama is not just giving us “Change,” because that would be too ham-handed. He’s giving us “change we can believe in”—a tweaking of the Formula that is repetition with a difference. A difference that makes a difference.

But, you know, I’m sure I’m not the only person drawing this obvious parallel between Obama and David Allen Coe. (She says while chuckling to herself...)


kgrady said...

[I deleted my previous comment and revised it due to my ongoing difficulty with names.]

This is hilarious, and such a great illustration of what it would mean to talk about something that only Dr. J could write!

I've spent a lot of time during this campaign wondering about where to draw the line between pandering and what you refer to as the formula; thanks for reminding me that that's a matter that can only be answered by good judgment, and good songwriting.

Clay Eals said...

Dr. J:

Good to see your insightful post with its lead-in about "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" by Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my new 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves deeply into the genesis of "You Never Even Call Me by My Name," co-written by John Prine, debunking the notion that David Allan Coe had anything to do with the classic final verse. Coe and Prine were among my more than 1,000 interviewees.

You can find out more at my Internet site (below). The book's first printing just sold out, all 5,000 copies, and a second edition of 5,000 is available now. The second edition includes hundreds of little updates and additions, including 30 more photos for a total of 575. It just won a 2008 IPPY (Independent Publishers Association) silver medal for biography.

To order a second-printing copy, see the "online store" page of my site. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
(206) 484-8008

John said...

Leigh, you make some very astute comments in this blog. Let me say first that as someone who is not a regular reader/ writer here I fear some kind of abruptness or violation of virtual boundaries may be implicit in this comment. Nevertheless, I hope that I may "earn my keep" here.

No to the point I wish to make: the formula and the iteration or "tweaking" of the formula-- that is clear. But my understanding of the "hermeneutics of Obama's speeches" is a bit different. I have watched Obama speak a bit and it seems to me that as a subtle and skilled orator he is not only tweaking a formula but actively shaping a message-- reintroducing something like the old party platform, which had somewhat disappeared in the modern campaign. My point is that something that seems formulaic or a slight departure from a formula is a highly crafted product. Obama is actually rather intellectual in his approach, stating opposing positions and dialectically moving beyond them-- he is able to make this seem formulaic, an inevitable conclusion to the argument, but behind this is an original mind reworking some very contentious and messy political "material".

I guess I am saying that the "formula" requires a lot of formulation before it is presented. And in terms of the Democratic party it had been missing for a while.

DOCTOR J said...

Clay: Thanks for stopping by and, yes, I agree with you that Steve Goodman doesb't get his due. I will definitely check out your book. I'm jealous of anyone who has had the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with John Prine!

John: First, glad to have you in the conversation (finally)! You make a good point about the difference between "tweaking" a formula and "formulating" a formula. I guess my repsonse is still that I think what Obama is doing is "tweaking," though maybe I should give him credit for a more radical tweaking than I do.

When you say " My point is that something that seems formulaic or a slight departure from a formula is a highly crafted product."-- we are in complete agreement there. In fact, that was (supposed to) be my point as well, which is why I used the example of the Goodman/Coe song. It seems only a "slight departure from a formula" but it is in fact a "highly crafted product." What it is NOT, however, is something totally new... and it's that fact which makes it sound familiar and resonate with the "populace."

I guess what I'm saying here is that it's hard for me to imagine someone coming into a political campaign who rejected the formula altogether, or who so radically crafted his or her own formula as to present us with something genuinely novel. And I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing.

John said...

Thank you for your response. I understand and almost agree-- but I wonder about the general nature of the formula: what creates it, what authorizes it, is it a term that can be thought through philosophically or does it belong to the "arena" of politics?

Well I have been reading Badiou here and there, in a less than disciplined way, but I am struck by some of what he says in the essay Philosophy and Politics (from Infinite Thought). He seems to regard philosophy and politics as distinct, heterogeneous domains-- correct me if I am wrong but he seems to question the possibility of political theory as such since politics is engagement with distinct events and therefore exists independent (?) of thought.

But in his essay Badiou states that justice is "the name by which philosophy designates the possible truth of a political orientation". So justice alone is a term from philosophy that enters into political discourse. Badiou then calls this truth engaged with the political a "thought in act".

If we accept this, well formulation, of what justice might be, as a singular moment in which truth enters in politics, then there is somewhat more distance between the "formula" (the equation of political forces or interests) and the "formulation" (restrained action that is a "thought in act").

I admit there are problems with Badiou's story-- we become largely incapable of generalizing about politics or rights, except in singular moments. But where I was going with this is: What can we say about a "political actor"? Is he conditioned by the equation of power or can he act singularly, independently (even, from philosophical bases?), can he formulate something? How far then can Obama or anyone else tweak the formula?

Leigh, if I have misunderstood what you meant by the formula completely tell me.

DOCTOR J said...


I'm not sure that I can comment intelligently on Badiou, since I have read so little of his stuff and am mostly operating with a kind of caricature of his work that I have gleaned from commentaries... but let me try to address your questions as I read them here.

First, what I mean by the "Formula" is probably something closer to Kant's "categories of the understanding." (I realize, even as I write this, that this is an overly-pretentious way of characterizing my claims... and what follows will probably make most legit Kantians throw up in their mouths just a bit.) So, for instance, there are certain requisite criteria that must be met before one can even recognize a "country and western song" as such-- a certain chord progression, the deployment of a limited number of thematic tropes, the ever-elusive "twang", etc, etc. What I find very interesting about the Coe/Goodman exchange that I related in the original post was that they recognized that they realized that, in order to consitute the "perfect" country and western song, one needs to approximate as closely as possible all of these criteria. But there's a twist, I think... which is that if one simply or merely reproduces these elemental criteria, then the song is not "perfect"--that is, it doesn't "register," so to speak, with listeners--but rather it's only formulaic... like a bland hamburger or landscape painting. The trick is to follow the Formula just enough, so that it seems both familiar and intersting.

And here's where the "tweaking" comes in. Like all great artists, the truly ingenious country music songwriters are able to find that perfect balance between the familiar/formulaic and the unfamiliar--that is, they are able to affect the unheimlich. Now, I suppose there are all kinds of ways to do that, but what I especially like about how it's done in the song "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" is that the tweaking involves a kind of reflection on both the Formula and the necessity-of-tweaking itself.

That, I think, is exactly the sort of tweaking that I think Obama does as well.

So, why my resistance to saying that Obama is actually doing something "new" (and not "formulaic")? Because I think that in political campaigns (and maybe "politics" in general, though I don't want to make that bold of a claim just yet), there isn't anything that is absolutely new, in the sense of an absolute departure from our categories of understanding "the political." The whole point of a "campaign" is to find out what appeals to the populace, because what one is attempting to marshal in a campaign is the power (kratos) of the people (demos). There is a Formula for that, which is tried and true (emphasis on "tried"), and as I said in the post, it can be tweaked, but it cannot be circumvented. Attempting to circumvent it altogether would be like trying to play a John Cage composition at a Justin Timberlake concert... or placing a peice of really avant-guarde artwork on the wall of a Starbucks.

I realize I am going on too long here, so let me try to sum up. I agree with you that there is some distance between the "formula" and the "formulation (of the formula)"-- a distance that we want to keep, of course, but which must always be a measured distance when we're talking about the "practice" (as opposed to the "theory", ot use a completely inadequate distinction) of politics. I think that Obama has measured that distance well, which is why I wanted to make the (admittedly pedestrian) comparison between his candidacy and the Coe/Goodman country song.

Is this making any more sense?

John said...

You are making sense, thank you for your generous resonse to my comment-- which was a perhaps misguided attempt to introduce Badiou into a discussion of American politics. I see the parallel also between music or artwork (with a set of recognizable forms) and political discourse (with recognizable messages). I agree that the distance from the formula or set of forms must be measured and not the introduction of something unrecognizable (e.g. Trotskyism into the Republican platform). But I wonder if thre is not an additional aspect to this comparison to music. Good music is able to draw in the listener (deep listening, reverie?), good art draw in the viewer, so that it seems that we are participating in it in some way. Bad music does not, it is "that song again". I am wondering if in some way the form/ content distinction is itself affected and involved in good music and art, so that the piece seems internal as well, part of one's consciousness. Similarly "good" politics is engaging, participatory, as opposed to "bad" politics (just another politician, just another slogan). That was what I was getting at in my longwinded comment-- entering into the formula itself by the candidate, then by the voter, so it is no longer external, like advertising or art on a wall that one dismisses.

I completely agree that the introduction of new forms, new messages, must be measured and continuous with past forms. The striking of a chord in the electorate suggests to me a certain kind of "performing" and listening though as well as a certain kind of form.

DOCTOR J said...


First, I'm glad to see you introduce Badiou into this discussion. Although I don't know enough about Badiou to comment on your commentary, there are certainly readers of this blog who do... so that is just to say that I think your comments are totally appropriate.

And I also want to say that, in your last comment, you said exactly what I think I've been trying to say (only much more eloquently and succinctly). That is, when you say "I am wondering if in some way the form/ content distinction is itself affected and involved in good music and art, so that the piece seems internal as well, part of one's consciousness"... that is what I am wondering as well.

Again, I'm so glad that you have entered the fray.