The Star-Flung Ramparts of the Mind: Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone

By Daniel Garrett

Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone
Produced by Kevin Augunas, Dan Auerbach, and Peter Sabak
Concord, 2013

For Myrna T. Ryan, in memoriam

She is one of those women who seems ancient and young, sophisticated and simple, fragile and strong.  She is a worker of roots, a maker of magic light and dark.  True to herself, Valerie June Hockett has a key into all of us.  On “Workin’ Woman Blues,” Valerie June’s voice sounds like something old, something shaped by time and tradition and trouble, singing lyrics about hard times—hard work and little food.  “I’m ready for my sugar daddy,” she admits.  One can hear the unique life of the American hill country in the banjo of “Somebody to Love” but also in Valerie June’s sung phrasing.  “The Hour” draws the listener in easily; it reassures.

Valerie June Hockett is a daughter of the American south, of Tennessee: the land that once interested adventurous explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Juan Pardo, and Sir Walter Raleigh; Tennessee, with its Unaka mountains, great valley, Cumberland plateau, highland rim, central basin, and great coastal plain: arguably, the center of the south, surrounded as it is by Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.  Tennessee, which had joined the American union of states in 1796, seceded from the union in 1861; although people in east Tennessee, with fewer of the enslaved among them, did not want to secede—and fought on the side of the union, with the North.  The state—with its beech, cottonwood, and hickory trees, its tupelo gum, yellow poplar oak and sycamore trees, as well as its swamps—became a battleground during America’s civil war, but, after accepting the fourteenth amendment, it was readmitted into the union.  The howling of Native Americans and Africans echoes through its history.  It is hard to think of the southern United States as modern, but it is: and Tennessee has universities, libraries, museums, and industry, including the manufacture of clothing and textiles as well as electronics and chemicals.  Its writers: James Agee, Lisa Alther, Madison Smartt Bell, Nikki Giovanni, Alex Haley, and Ann Patchett.  Its musicians: Chet Atkins, Kenny Chesney, Alex Chilton, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Brownie McGhee, Keb Mo (Kevin Moore), Dolly Parton, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Koko Taylor.

“Workin’ Woman Blues”?  One thing that the American south does well is teach perseverance, and another is make lasting folk culture.  “As a woman growing up in the South—you know, I’m the oldest girl of five kids, and I always helped my parents around the house—there was always work to do.  And then, when I became a woman, any job that I could think of that I wanted to do, I went for it: from a coffee shop to a herb shop, where I was working with natural healing and oils and stuff, and then vegetarian cooking and caretaking.  A lot of different jobs that I’ve had in the past made me really, really feel that song in every joint, every day of my life.  I was working seven to 10 hours, seven days a week at least,” Valerie June Hockett told National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, commenting on “Workin’ Woman Blues” (All Things Considered, August 9, 2013).  Valerie June grew up out in the Tennessee country, between a couple of towns, Humboldt and Jackson.  She sang in church, listening and learning from the different voices she heard there; and she also liked the music of Elisabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, and The Carter family.  I imagine Valerie June has grown up with both a sense of freedom and also of isolation: it is the kind of thing that stimulates the imagination, and gives an artist the will to connect with the larger world.  Her grandfather gave her a guitar, and she plays that instrument and also banjo and ukulele.  Valerie June moved to Memphis and made significant friends; and she moved to New York and made more: and she has worked with Dan Auerbach, Eric Church, John Forte, Meshelle Ndegeocello, and the Old Crow Medicine Show.  Valerie June’s discography includes The Way of the Weeping Willow (2006), Mountain of Rose Quartz (2008), and Valerie June and the Tennessee Express (2010).  Her Pushin’ Against a Stone album, featuring “Workin’ Woman Blues,” “Somebody to Love,” and “The Hour,” was recorded in Nashville and Budapest, a fact that says much about Valerie June and the state of contemporary music and culture.  Everything is connected.

Writing about Valerie June in the New York Times, following a live performance, the newspaper’s music critic Jon Pareles wrote, “Between songs, with a mixture of candor and caginess, she offered glimpses of her past and present as leisurely shaggy dog stories, told in her rural Tennessee drawl.  They were true-life tales of a country gal making her career in the wider world, savoring both the greens and corn bread her ‘mama’ cooks and the baguettes and charcuterie of her current home, Brooklyn” (December 31, 2013).  The writer would go on to link the singer and instrumentalist to the blues tradition, and rap and West African music, affirming her musical knowledge and self-awareness.

Of course, the banjo is an African instrument.  Valerie June loves old-time music, folk music, the music of banjo and fiddle and violin, the kind of music that people make to fit into country lives, the kind of music that people in cities find a healthy, nurturing relief; and she has added something to that tradition.  Valerie June has cited Alan Lomax’s collection of recorded folk songs as being part of her research.  Yet, the Fisk professor Thomas Talley, an African American, collected the Tennessee songs and folklore of blacks in the early twentieth century; and Talley’s work is further proof of the cross-currents in American culture.  Valerie June is a bearer of culture (as have been Odetta, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, Keb Mo, Eric Bibb, and Martha Redbone).  In “Twined and Twisted,” there is a sense of fundamental confidence, simple and sure.  “Wanna Be On Your Mind” is sensual, soulful.  “June has an airy, delicate voice, with bits of Dolly Parton and Norah Jones peeking through.  Sometimes she sounds like an old blues singer, harrowing and weird because the blues can be both of those things; other times, she lands squarely in folk, like a nice duet partner for Sam Amidon or Jessica Pratt.  As the album progresses, she softens her vocals and harmonizes more (with herself), so she sounds increasingly mellifluous, if less unique,” Elias Leight wrote in Paste magazine (September 3, 2013).  “Tennessee Time” and “Pushin’ Against a Stone” acknowledge other places, other times, other ways of being, and somehow lets us know that what we share is suffering, exultation, and survival, the trials and strengths of spirit.  The guitar truly wails in “Pushin’ Against a Stone” but it is not more eloquent than Valerie June’s voice.  The short but salutary notice of Valerie June’s work in Rolling Stone magazine remarked, “a remarkably braided album of roots music, connecting country, string band, gospel, blues and R&B traditions so fluently, it’s like the racially cleaved styles never needed connecting.  Dan Auerbach adds his signature crate-digger production and guitar sizzle, but back-porch-y tunes like ‘Somebody to Love,’ with Luca Kézdy’s delicious fiddle, are no less rousing than the juke-jointy ones.  Credit June’s vinegary, slightly oddball vocals, equal parts Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, which guide each song like an old tractor retrofit with LED high beams: luminous, ancient, unstoppable” (October 18, 2013).

It is easy to draw courage or inspiration from Valerie June’s example: it is frequently the vision and voice of women that—with enlightenment and empathy—forms a secret, sustaining power.  Their beauty and strength are gifts to us but comes at a price to them.  Women are strangers, colleagues, friends, lovers, sisters, mothers, grandmothers: women are a power of birth, nourishment, defeat, and destruction, a fundamental and mysterious power that illuminates all.  I remember women as friends and enemies.  I was a sensitive boy, but an embattled one, and after leaving one place to move to another, from a small country town to a great but challenging city, I sent a letter to a woman friend, a librarian, a middle-age southern white woman, someone with whom I had worked, and she detected something melancholy beneath my sentences, and said, “Don’t let them kill your spirit.”  It was an admonition to remember when facing the opposition of the ignorant or indelicate or ideological, the perverse or provincial or powerful, the resentful or rich or rude.  Often people, men and women, of various cultures and ethnicities, prefer African-American men to be blank slates upon which others can write, or as examples of what not to be and do.  That can make both social and intimate relations difficult.  Friends and artists offered healing words and gestures.

The musical art form may offer the most permanent gestures of all.  However, today we must be wary even of well-deserved praise, knowing how public figures are used as illustrations of presuppositions and principles that were important to us before those figures ever arrived on the cultural scene.  How is a woman artist to be praised, for which qualities—the traditional or the new?  Is she authentic or artificial?  Is she ordinary or imaginative and transformative?  Is she an exponent of intellect or an expresser of passion?  One recalls many failures of judgment: Ira Gitler’s denunciation of Abbey Lincoln’s ground-breaking, now revered masterpiece Straight Ahead; Lincoln Collier’s The Making of Jazz, noted for its vast research and its denigrating generalizations of African-American musicians; Molly Haskell’s questioning of Diahann Carroll’s vivid (humorous, intense) performance in the film Claudine; Jon Pareles’ and Stephen Holden’s jaded comments about rare and valuable Diana Ross and Michael Jackson; and James Wood’s dismissal of the generosity of vision and failure to see the significant theme in Toni Morrison’s Paradise—the beloved community and who is allowed in or disallowed, the greatest of subjects in America (Morrison did what her characters did not do: she accepted all); Daphne Carr’s ridiculous attribution of the creativity of the band TV on the Radio to its white producer rather than its black singers and songwriters; and David Edelstein’s absurd assertion that one of the most popular and powerful actors ever, Denzel Washington, is not likable; Jody Rosen’s naming Taylor Swift as the most popular music performer of the contemporary moment (in front of Beyonce and Rihanna).  Of course, African-American artists and intellectuals are not the only ones slandered: I recall Phillip Lopate’s rather shallow interpretation in Notes on Sontag; how he misinterprets essayist and fiction writer Susan Sontag’s praise of 1960s youthful political participation and regard for personal explorations as a denial of the intelligence of the young, or Lopate’s simplification of Sontag’s actual affirmation of psychoanalysis as both a theory of human nature and a political interpretation as being merely political.  Again and again, Lopate yanks Sontag’s commentary out of context and imposes a dumb spin on them—and then disagrees with his own spin, pretending he is conducting a serious argument with her (Lopate’s generally petty digressions are irritating: he is one of those foolish people who are offended that a gifted or accomplished person knows she is that).

One must renew the attention to the form and spirit of art, and to criticism as well.  “If criticism must make its case as illuminating commentary on works of art, then the best vehicle for criticism is not the extended monograph or the hastily written review but the literary essay, personal, reflective, attuned to an ongoing conversation,” wrote literary critic Morris Dickstein in “Wrestling with the Angel” in The Critical Pulse (page 189), the 2012 book from Columbia University Press.  There are essayists and critics of diverse genres whose works remain to form high and pleasing standards: Houston Baker, Jacques Barzun, Albert Camus, Emil Cioran, Morris Dickstein, Ralph Ellison, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Emerson, Christopher John Farley, Nelson George, William Giraldi, Martin Johnson, June Jordan, Pauline Kael, Alain Locke, Wesley Morris, David Nathan, Lucius Outlaw, Susan Sontag, Alan A. Stone, Henry David Thoreau, Lionel Trilling, Gore Vidal, Christian John Wikane, and Susan Willis.  One may have to search libraries for some of their works but that effort is worth it.  The 2013 book Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America, from the University of Wisconsin Press, argues for the role of libraries in literacy, access to knowledge, participation in citizenship, and employment.  With the current fragmentation of culture—hypothetically, everything is available, with very little order—libraries and librarians are more necessary than ever, as curators and resources, although not all of us know that.  There are important books that have been published, works of culture, history, philosophy, and politics, that should be read and discussed—and yet few of us have heard of them: Affirmative Reaction: New Frontiers of White Masculinity by Hamilton Carroll; Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Identities and African Visual Culture by Carol Magee; Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist edited by Richard J. Powell; Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life by Benjamin Kahan; The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run by Rob Stone; The Critical Pulse, edited by Jeffrey Williams and Heather Steffen; Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus, edited by Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel; Film Dialogue, edited by Jeff Jaeckle; Heritage, Culture, and Politics in the Postcolony by Daniel Herwitz; Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West by Michael K. Johnson; How It Feels to Be Free by Ruth Feldstein; I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon by Toure; Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities by Mark A. Neal; Opening Bazin, edited by Dudley Andrew; Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, edited by Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell; Routledge Dictionary of Turkish Cinema by Gonul Donmez-Colin; and What Was African American Literature by Kenneth Warren.

Both Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (Lippincott, 1937) and Sula in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (Knopf, 1973) face suspicion and condemnation for their agency and freedom in the eyes and mouths of the small-minded gossips that surround them in rural communities.  The implied critique of provincialism and malice is one that is hard to penetrate, if one is to judge by their survival until today.  Almost every African-American woman strives against limited expectations on behalf of expansive liberties; and they are sometimes misunderstood: the challenges of women artists are played out in public.  Valerie June Hockett has established a strong foundation for herself with Pushin’ Against a Stone; and one has reason to hope—yet there is complexity in her choosing to return to apparently simple music, folk music (that is not the usual choice for a young African-American woman).  Often the confidence that underlies such a choice becomes offensive to some.  One listens to Valerie June’s music and thinks she just may be strong enough to face whatever comes.

Valerie June is a woman who has taken on the role of a worker in “Workin’ Woman Blues,” her light sharp voice delivering its testimony of commitment and exhaustion; that song followed by the slow pace of “Somebody to Love,” her country accent perceptible.  There is a bit of a girl group sound in “The Hour,” an acknowledgement of time that “won’t tell you no lie.”  Alienation from family and home—a fear but sometimes an inevitability, if not a necessity—occurs in “Twined and Twisted,” in which the narrator declares,” I’ve got no place in this whole world.”  Entrancing—there is no other word for “Wanna Be On Your Mind,” an embodiment of country soul.  “Tennessee Time” begins with a masculine voice but its thoughtful sadness seems distinctly female; and the introduction to “Pushin’ Against a Stone” is taut, and the song itself has an experimental quality.  “Trials, Troubles Tribulations” is a hymn with references to Jesus, heaven, and the hellish horned beast: conveying spiritual belief despite difficulties.  “You Can’t Be Told” is a foot-stomper, with heavy drumming and clapping; and the only thing one can do is join in but get out of her way.  The danger of not getting out of her way is clear in the bluesy “Shotgun,” in which a woman sees her lover kiss someone else then return home with sweet lies, a song of male infidelity and female jealousy, a ballad of love and murder (“if I can’t have you, nobody can”); and the song began as an image of a house and wheat field in the singer’s imagination.  The collection closes with the bluegrass sound of “On My Way” and an acoustic version of “Somebody to Love.”

It is acceptance, creativity, encouragement, and support that facilitate growth.  Families have positive and negative effects on children, and there may be no more fundamental force than that of a woman acting as mother.  In The Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reader (“The Master’s Pieces”), the 2012 career retrospective from Basic Civitas, Professor Gates, following his colleague Hortense Spillers, writes of the exceptional influence of women, of black mothers, on black men, with recognition that black men’s voices are shaped in many ways by black women.  Through Valerie June’s music on Pushin’Against a Stone, I am reminded once more of the power of woman as mother and sister, friend and lover.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.