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Weekend reads: Douglas Adams' bio in The Frood, The Bone Clocks and Harry Partch, Hobo Composer
Don't forget your towel, readers
Harry Partch, Hobo Composer
Dorothea Lange's migrant mother from 1936
Harry Partch may not be a household name, but he was one of the most innovative and original musicians of the 20th century, a precursor to the Beat Generation and an influence on the likes of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.
Always something of an itinerant, Partch spent most of the thirties and early forties living the life of a tramp (in UK parlance), collecting his experiences in a diary called Bitter Music which inspired his later work.
S. Andrew Granade has written an excellent biography of Partch’s life and work, which places him amongst the great artists who documented the Depression era of the 1930s, such as John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange and Woody Guthrie.
Like many artists from Charles Dickens to Irvine Welsh, Harry Partch discovered that for himself and his audience, “The nuance of inflection and thoughts of the lowest of our social order was a new experience.”
He composed lyrics from the stories of hobos he met on the road and graffiti he found scrawled where they gathered, such as this from Barstow: “I’m freezing...I’m hungry and broke. I wish I was dead. But today I am a man.”
Granade correctly observes that “[w]hile Guthrie wanted to speak for the people, Partch wanted to let the people speak.”
Harry Partch had abandoned traditional musical forms in the late 1920s. He invented a new microtonal music with 43 tones to an octave, influenced by Chinese and Ancient Greek forms. He began inventing and building an increasing number of his own instruments to play his music.
Always the outsider, he had a lifelong affinity with the homeless and dispossessed: “Into eternity the hobo mind seeks something different, something better, something beyond.”
Granade places Partch in an American tradition which stretches back to Walt Whitman and Jack London and describes how American music was still searching for its own identity when Harry Partch began his musical life.
He digs beneath the myth of the hobo to find some uncomfortable truths, such as this original lyric from Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain: “I’ll be god-damned if I hike any more, to be buggered sore, like a hobo’s whore.”
Like Partch’s music, this book transports the reader on top of boxcars and into dustbowl deprivation and explains the cultural background and the public attitude to migrants as it changed during the influx of jobless refugees and dust bowl Okies in the 1930s. It takes us on Partch’s last ride east, which inspired one of his greatest works: US Highball (Youtube audio): “At almost forty years, he had little to show”.
Columbia Records ad for The World of Harry Partch, 1969
Partch manages to gain a Guggenheim fellowship, which enables him to stage his works in New York. Thereafter he leads the life of the institutional hobo: “From university to university, from ramshackle house to borrowed ranch.”
Granade’s book concentrates on Partch’s formative years, but goes on to described how he never really broke free of his past, describing himself in his later years as "a hobo with two tons of weird instruments”.
And after Partch’s death in 1974, Ben Johnston wrote: “By being a hobo...in large part he had won his freedom.”
S Andrew Granade has written a fascinating account of one of music’s great outsiders. It is also an absorbing memoir of a culture long since gone and a tribute to Partch’s lifelong struggle and achievements. ®
Title Harry Partch, Hobo Composer
Publisher University of Rochester Press
Price £20 (Hardback), £13 (ebook)
More info Publication web site