Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Dancing Outlaw

Well, this weekend I finally got to see the famous, or should I say infamous, documentary on Jesco, The Dancing Outlaw. More than any other documentary, this piece on one family in Boone County, West Virginia, has defined Appalachia as a place to the outside world – indeed, with the exception of cartoon portrayals of Appalachians (e.g. The Flintstones) and the film version of Deliverance, this film is arguably the most important work defining how Americans from other regions view Appalachia.

I won’t comment on Jesco at any length. I believe his story, and that of his family is tragic – that they maintain their humor at all, much less an ancient form of dance that has survived, while evolving, a long hiatus from the British Isles, is frankly amazing.

That said, I want to discuss how the film left me feeling a little sick, literally. The filmmaker, at least it seems, intentionally edited his work in such a form as to belittle Jesco and his family, making light of the fact that they are undereducated, part of a cycle of violence, and that Jesco obviously has some variant form of mental illness, probably the result of losing hope given his personal desperation. In other words, the goal of this “documentary” was to publicly embarrass and insult its subjects, not enlighten the world as to the nature of their condition. Humor was not a side note, but the intent of the film. If he had edited a documentary on the ghettos of New Orleans, New York, Boston, or Los Angeles in such a way, public outrage would be astounding – and rightly so. Don’t agree? Imagine a “documentary” in which the intent was to make you laugh at poor, uneducated blacks from New Orleans, with particular emphasis on the one member of the family who could perform an artistic act but was obviously either under grave duress, hopeless, or mentally ill. Now add in the fact that this family was obviously being torn asunder by the anguish of having lost several members very recently, all of them either to murder or automobile accidents.

Yeah, that’d be hilarious.



Now, I want to pause here and note that many of the people who enjoy the film enjoy it by mere virtue of the air of nobility that manages to squeak through the film's editing. Despite all you like Jesco and his family, because they are, in the end, good, decent folks. You like them because they are trying to take advantage of their moment in the sun, like any human being would; they're drawing some pride from being able to tell their stories. And, frankly, you admire them because they draw happiness from the minimum qualities of life - woods, air, food, drink, music, family, and so on - very Taoist.

To say I have mixed feelings is, well, an understatement.

You know what, though? I think everyone should see this film. I do. I think everyone should see these films to see the outcome of the colonial economy that still dominates the coalfields (and, even worse, their wake, once the coal has been mined out). I think everyone should see why our governments damned well have to overhaul the public education systems in impoverished areas, Appalachian and otherwise. And, frankly, I think that everyone, and most especially artists and artistians, should see just how foul a human being can be – and by that I mean the filmmaker responsible for this grotesquery – as a model of what not to do. This film is the kind of documentary published by imperial nations in the early 20th Century, justifying their continued dominance over children-peoples – it is, in other words, propaganda that justifies exactly the kind of economic oppression which continues in Appalachia, and that is exactly what it deserves to be called. And, frankly, the film is a demonstration of the potential for human beings to endure enormous angst and come out smiling. Sort of. I know in this blog's by-line it explicitly states that we're trying to get over Rousseau's sylvan myths - but damned if Appalachia's endemic fatalism doesn't share a helluva' a lot with Taoism and philsophical Buddhism. Crazy.

All that said, I hope someday I get to see Jesco dance. Because damn, that man can step.

Also see:

The Documentary Channel's biography of Jesco White and review of the movie.

The homepage of Jescofest, which benefits the great Mr. White (we just missed it, I fear - it was this past weekend).

The Austin Chronicle's interview with Jacob Young, the filmmaker who launched Jesco to fame.

A Charleston Daily Mail article on Jesco and Jescofest.

An interview with Hank Williams, III on Midwest Excess in which Jesco was discussed at length.

God Bless Jessie White.

8 comments:

cechols said...

Great story. Worthy cause. Awesome poster.

the Contrary Goddess said...

Contrary to your argument, Jessco is evidence of exactly why the government, especially the federal government, and all the yankee do-gooders there are, should stay out of my mountains. Yes, Jessco is probably suffering some mental illness, likely brought on by his huffing and drugging, but he also has values, a family, and a culture. "Education" kills culture. "Good jobs" kill everything else. Mountaineers are, at heart, subsistence farmers, small holders, skilled craftsmen -- and we do fine in an economy that is not dominated by the highest dollar. Yes, we deserve more than to be tourist attractions for our crafts & culture

I could probably rant on for awhile but suffice to say, I love Jessco. I know you do too.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

I see your point, but I have to cordially disagree. I see education, in particular, as our only way of keeping any elements of our traditional culture alive - most of the subsistence farmers in Appalachia, for instance, disappeared a century ago specifically because they didn't have the legal and economic knowledge necessary to avoid making a series of bad decisions. Do I think that people from outside of the mountains should be attempting to change our accents, for instance? Not at all. But do I think kids need fundamental educations in politics, economics, geography, science, mathematics, philosophy, and so forth? Absolutely. Sadly, cultures that do not adapt to changing economic and technological circumstances die - it is only cultures that are capable of adapting to new technologies and cultural patterns while still maintaining their own personality that survive.

Oh, and as to the out-of-towners coming in and changing our culture? In Appalachia the government only represents half of the most powerful out-of-region force - the coal companies (and their associated industries) have been a far greater force for cultural change in Appalachia - and indeed its relative decline.

the Contrary Goddess said...

Oh, absolutely. One of my family stories involves the infamous Red Fox, Doc Taylor, who was murdered by a confederacy of the state and the coal companies because he was advising the locals not to sell their mineral rights. Second man hung in Wise County. My great-grandmother knew him, hid him, and went to his hanging. Most of my family hung on to their mineral rights and became rather wealthy, at least for a time. I'm back to Appalachian subsistence farmer myself.

And while education is essential, it is best when not practiced by the state. See John Taylor Gatto's history of education for details.

Best to you.

Eleutheros said...

Someone who knows I'm a Jessco fan directed me here. Good blog!

But as to education saving us, I'd have to say it is likely the opposite.

My grandfather lived most of his life in Russell Co. He had almost no formal education and yet was fluent in world history, philosophy, and many other areas. Many a night by the glowing coal grate he'd give his version of what was going on in the French Revolution, why Benjamin Franklin's view of freedom of press isn't followed now of days (years ago), and what was the true meaning of Emerson.

He could do complicated math in his head instantly, a bit of a penny pincher, he'd calculate compound interest on the fly and was not to be cheated.

He was a barber and a farmer. And he was far from alone as I recall relatives and neighbors coming by on summer evenings and wagging tongues until late in the night.

What passes for education is in fact indoctrination. It is insidious. I remember my very well spoken and quite knowledgeable great grandmother feeling not up to snuff because she was not formally educated simply because that's why everyone is supposed to be .... right?

It was the idea that you ought to be formally educated that caused the folk to fall victim to the miserable Yankees that came in successive waves to exploit the resources, not that they were actually lacking in anything.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

A very good point - a heckuva' lot of formal education is, frankly, propaganda. That said, well-done education is essential. I myself don't believe that there is only one solution to education, frankly, I believe there are many. But whether you have a good homeschooling combined with personal self-enrichment or a formal public or private education (I myself am a fervant student of history on my own time who attended public school and a private, small college), we have to have a culture of education. What formal education allows, when it is properly functioning, is a forum for debate. Is public education, or private education for that matter, ever perfect. Absolutely not. That said, as the great Adam Smith pointed out, education is one of the three pillars of power and a functioning economy, along with an effective (put civilian-controled) military and good infrastructure, in particular of transportation and communication. Have I been taught horrible history? Yeah. But have I also had great teachers - indeed many who taught me the principles of art, literature, and to not be ashamed of being an Appalachian? Quite. Like everything, its a mixed bag, but one so important it demands constant attention. Awesome debate.

Eleutheros said...

I suppose from the perspective of my guilty and haunted life, I'd have to say that government "education" in it's very essence and sine qua non is a system of indoctrination. Propoganda is the iron framwork over which a thin and unconvincing veneer of academics is artlessly draped.

Now of days that pushes the indoctrinees into a mirthless life as a cubicle dweller enslaved in debt as the only life seen as available to him. In times past it has led our fellow mountaineers into signing over their mineral rights for a song and then slaving away to mine those very minerals for even less.

A mixed bag in that the schools taught you to not be ashamed of being Appalachian? That's like breaking someone's legs, giving him crutches, and then saying he can walk because of you.

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