Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture

By McCarl, Robert S. | Western Folklore, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture


McCarl, Robert S., Western Folklore


Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. By Archie Green. Foreword by Robert Cantwell. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xxvii + 242, illustrations, author bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper)

On a drizzly afternoon, I stood with Archie Green in the atrium of one of San Francisco's glass-fronted corporate piles near Market Street. As we dodged office workers and took a breather from our foot-, bus- and BART-tour of the city's labor landmarks, Archie stood with his hands behind his back, facing the interior of the building. He caressed the wooden railing that followed the glass building's huge footprint and continued his observations of labor and labor study in the city. As he talked, his hands seeking out the smooth surface of the teak, I gradually began to understand that the story he was telling about careful joinery and old-time craftsmanship juxtaposed against the flagrant monumentalism of the corporate headquarters was not a mere Archie observation, nor yet another irony of work culture in a world that could care less. He was not talking about just anyjoinery or craft experience, he was talking about his role in planning, shaping and constructing the very railing he was touching. This was a building Archie had worked on.

This personal attachment, this bi- and tri-cultural ability to tangibly forge new meanings out of a variety of cultural contexts, characterizes Archie's thinking and writing. In Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture, we look over his shoulder as he traces the etymology of words like "dutchman," "fink," "cosmic cowboy," and "hillbilly." We join in the celebration as he pays tribute to the work of people like Cecil Sharp, Robert W. Gordon, Tom Benton, and-in a more personal vein-Jack Fitch and Peter Tamony. This rich Mulligan stew of a book suggests how much we owe Archie Green for the subtlety and grace of his scholarship and his craftsmanship.

A short introduction by Robert Cantwell draws attention to the stylistic elements of Archie's delivery. Archie draws upon insights from a variety of sources simultaneously; he pauses to remind us that he is speaking and he consistently draws our attention to predecessors, insiders and colleagues whose insights, hard work and (in the case of Richard M. Dorson) approbation brought him to a particular course of action. Action. Active. This is work. Archie exhibits his skill at combining traditional scholarship with a keen eye for visual representation and, if we could but listen to the music he describes and annotates, for aural experience. These are not just experiences of the mind and citations from published sources. These are accounts of real people who have committed themselves to an ethos of sacrifice for their craft-difficult, but satisfying. Examples are seen in Archie's description of Lawrence Roberts's lessons in woodsmanship; his admiration for the ringing integrity of Sarah Ogan Gunning; his joy at seeing the massive collection of his lifelong friend Peter Tamony preserved for research. …

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