In "Unknown bards," Sullivan reviews two recent books about the blues and a revelatory set of CDs of old, rare blues cuts -- "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues," by Elijah Wald, "In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music," by Marybeth Hamilton, and "American Primitive, Vol. 11: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939)." The set of CDs has copious liner notes that Sullivan treats almost like a book.
"The piece is sort of about blues writing becoming in part about itself and its own myth," Sullivan told me in a later telephone interview. "And it has turned out not to be a sterile, navel-gazing thing, but a thing that's made possible a whole new level of appreciation for the artistry of that old music."
I asked Sullivan to explain his obsession with the genre. "One of the big guys, one of the writers on that music, Greil Marcus or somebody, used a strange metaphor for the country blues, 'a dark star obliterating everything,'" Sullivan recalled. "This is over the top, but this music does ruin you for a lot of other stuff. The intensity is so great and the seriousness of the musicianship, it damages you somehow."
Sullivan, who plays guitar "in a kind of jangly, college-y sort of way," as he put it'a0during the telephone interview,'a0has struggled to get inside'a0these dangerous yet captivating old songs by playing them.'a0 During his appearance at UAB, he mentioned that he had tried to learn some of the same minor chord tunings that blues guitarist Skip James picked up from Bahamian soldiers during WWI.
"My attempts to play that music have definitely modifed my writing about it to a considerable degree, because I haven't come away with the experience of how they would be played, but I have come away with the experience of how hard they are, and how marvelous the composition is," Sullivan told me.'a0 "This is very often the case for a general interest writer. You are looking not for an access to knowledge but for an access to an ignorance, the exact feeling of being outside something so you can translate it. Truly to belong to one of these sub-populations that we write about requires almost total obsession, an almost borderline Asperger's obsession, and you can't do it and remain a writer, a pure writer. You're looking for this ignorance, not necessarily knowledge. That's how trying to play it helped me with the writing. It [allowed] the music to remain somewhat mystifying and inexplicable, because that's part of its quality when you get up close to it."
By the way, I am purposely holding back some of the really cool shit from my three interviews so far with Sullivan, because I will soon be posting a longer piece here at Mixed Media that will include more of his observations on the life of the writer and the nature of writing itself, as well as serving as an brief introduction to his work.
Sullivan, a'a0graduate of the University of the South,'a0has worked as an editor at Harper'92s, The Oxford American, and Oxford University Press, and as a Writer-at-Large for GQ Magazine. His journalism and reviews have appeared in the Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, Salon, New York Magazine, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. His first book, "Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter'92s Son," was published in 2004.
The UAB Writers Series continues on Wed., Nov. 5, with a reading'a0by novelist and essayist Randall Kenan. He will appear at Spencer Honors House, 1190 10th Avenue South, at 4 p.m.'a0 The event is free.'a0 For more information, call (205) 934-4250.
Sullivan photo by Justin King.