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History Remixed – The Quiet Audacity of Josh Ritter

There’s nothing new about historical or literary references – artists have always used history as compost – but the pacing and logic of allusion these days feels somehow fundamentally different. The work of Singer-Songwriter-Novelist Josh Ritter exemplifies this shift.   

“Neither humor, nor poetry, nor imagination means anything unless, by an anarchistic destruction generating a prodigious flight of forms . . . they succeed in organically reinvolving man, his ideas about reality, and his poetic place in reality.” Antoinin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double

The existence of books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a flashing, neon clue that our relationship with history is changing. Mashups like these are a product of the increasing flexibility of information – the power online computing has given us to play around with identity and meaning, and the surprising juxtapositions that it subjects us to. There’s nothing new about historical or literary references – artists have always used history as compost – but the pacing and logic of allusion these days feels somehow fundamentally changed.

With the recent release of his novel Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter has become the first notable Singer-Songwriter-Novelist since Leonard Cohen. His book, which Poet Robert Pinsky describes as “an adventure story with the penetrating emotional colors of a fable,” takes place during World War I, a period that drew the author because it “mated the ferocious absurdity of human nature with unprecedented leaps of technological capability to birth a new and monstrous kind of world-striding warfare that for the first time in history seemed capable of wiping away whole civilizations.” It’s a powerful yet surprising choice for a 35-year-old novelist who has never known war.

Many of Ritter’s songs, too, evoke historical and literary stories and characters. The singer cameos, pairs off, and enshrines these figures in various configurations, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes movingly, often a bit of both. “Folk Bloodbath,” a song on his 2010 album So Runs the World Away, is a mashup of early 20th-century Delta blues tunes that simultaneously evokes their dark, haunting beauty and half-jokingly hopes that the God “who looked out for” their slain protagonists isn’t the same one watching over “me and you.” The artist visited Big Think recently, and we asked him about the role of literary and historical allusion in his writing:

Josh Ritter: I agree that there seems to be a real trend that I feel even in my own life where we read less deeply than we have, even like four or five years ago.  I feel that it’s almost exponentially growing as things like Twitter and micro clips on the Internet happen and you can get small amounts of information that way, but not necessarily gain a fuller understanding or a fuller picture. And that’s where I find that the real joy is in history.  And I think that part of my job as a writer is to be able to pull those stories out, not just the characters but the entire stories and try and hold them up.

But really the stories are always the superstructure on a foundation of something else––what’s really important, the things that are very important to all of us as humans, you know, boy meets girl or war or God.  I don’t start with a character like William Tell and say “well, how can I write a story about William Tell?”  I can use the story of William Tell even just by mentioning his name, and it should draw up a set of ideas and fascinations that hopefully will draw people along into a story that is larger than that.  

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