The concept of “Old Weird America” was introduced by the music critic Greil Marcus in his 1997 exploration of Bob Dylan and the Band’s long suppressed so-called Basement Tapes from 1967. Marcus, a vivid prose stylist began as a reporter for Rolling Stone and has authored books about origins of Rock-n-Roll (Mystery Train) and Lipstick Traces, about the Punk phenomenon. The term has since been used to describe a lost American independence, a time when a person could make of him/herself whatever they were capable of—before mass communication flattened the imagination and consumerism suppressed our dreams of self-expression. Marcus alludes to this concept as “that misty, funky version of Brigadoon that lies just outside the normal precincts of American culture.”—further seeing it as the "playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes".
I believe his description applies to much of our history—especially before the constant connectivity to a mainstream American culture that began with TV in the late 1940s. (Radio was very local and an often eccentric communicator itself—a topic that may well enter into future stories).
In these presentations, I will use the term as a catch –all description for the eccentric, the odd, and the strange strain in American culture that still hides in the crannies of our 50 states—as we concentrate on peculiar characters and events in history. I believe the weird is still out there. America can be seen as a “cabinet of curiosities”—borrowed from European traditions in particular, of course, but uniquely interpreted within the vast heart of a strange new land. This fresh world was ripe for democratization and commercialization, perhaps—but it also still exists as a haven for deeply personal interpretations within its lost corners and endlessly varied landscape. And not just on the lonesome desert byways, the bayou honky-tonks, and the cheap urban dens—but in middle America (see the disturbing Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy) –or small towns anywhere-- there’s a youngster who knows they are different—not a sad “freak”, maybe not a genius either—but one who decides to cultivate instead of hide what makes them unusual. We’ll talk about women with taboo ambitions—as in our first two explorations of Nellie Bly and Theda Bara—or Little Richard (Penniman)--a young man who transgressed traditional gender, racial, and religious roles to put the sex in rock-n-roll that even Elvis could not fully convey. We will explore the obsessed hoarders, the mad artists, the squelched genius, and more of those people lost to history whose lives were ruled by their own compulsions. You may have heard of some of their names like Nellie Bly or Little Richard—but you probably don’t know the whole story—and just how far out on a limb they went to be true to themselves, for we know the world isn’t always kind to the outsider.