“I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else,” a character says in the closing lines of Todd Hayne’s pitch-perfect Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There.“ I don’tknow who I am most of the time.”
We in the audience don’t know much, either, except that he’s called Billy, as in Billy the Kid; he’s a disheveled outlaw type whose Western town’s about to get bought out and run over, if it ever existed at all. Now on the run, Billy sees a guitar case next to him and dusts it off: “This machine kills fascists,” it says. It’s the same case we saw, on the same freight train, at the beginning of the film; it belonged then to Woody Guthrie, a self-remade African American kid who’s chastised for singing about another time. It’s also, of course, the phrase that famously adorned the guitar of real-life Woody Guthrie—as in the one you read about and hear in your headphones.
“It’s like you got yesterday, today, and tomorrow, all in the same room,” Billy says. “There’s no tellin’ what can happen.”
You get that feeling all the time in this country, if you pay attention. We’re a nation founded on an idea, a myth, a story, and stories give you cohesion and chronology. It’s hard to forget the boisterous history shaping our present—not when it’s invoked so freely, and so cynically, in the public realm—or that our myth asks you to dream of the future—of your future and all its possibilities.
There’s a lot of freedom in this, and that’s certainly what Haynes sees in Bob Dylan, himself an archive of American mythology as much as a mythic figure:theexpansivepotential of fluid, performed identity. But it can also ring oppressive and false; that’s what Dylan sees in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” the one where he discovers America with Captain Arab and then beats it, telling Columbus, “Good luck.”
But you don’t have to look to famous figures past and present to understand our national self-image. If anything, you’re better served starting at the bottom. That’s what Andrew Waters does in “Jeremiah Burkhart’s 116th Dream.” Waters says he conceived the piece as a folk album in prose, and I suppose it could work like that—maybe as a concept EP. But it works better as something more: an organic product of the land that birthed our beautiful folk culture, with all its complexities and contradictions. If you spend time wandering the open fields of the Midwest or exploring the Carolina countryside, where Waters manages a nonprofit land trust, you feel why Frederick Jackson Turner so elevated the frontier, or why Teddy Roosevelt called our wilderness a great solemn cathedral, or why, after a storm, Jeremiah sees “sharecroppers and baseball-capped farmers on tractors, Confederate soldiers, dust bowl drifters” seep from the land—and yet you look to the horizon and dream of something larger, more distant; you get, in your fluttery, floating gut, what inspired Waters and the guitar-slinging ramblers before him.
Waters opens the story in a quicksilver version of this landscape overlaid with the archetypes and images that define it. We see girls of the field and dust-covered men who spit for emphasis, and an inscrutable black dog hangs in thebackground,ahauntingpresencefull of vague associations. Notice the eyes here—Jeremiah first feels “the animal’s knowing eyes upon him” and later sees it “waiting for him in the road, eyes glowing like specters.” They soon become others: the Carolinian train has “yellow eyes peering out from a grimy silver face”; the twister is “a great, sentient, swirling smoke eye”; the man who likely kills Isabel/Polly has “red, faraway eyes, like he hadn’t slept in years”; Delia looks at Jeremiah with “black eyes smoldering.”
These symbols—the dog, the train, the tornado—and these people—the desperate man, the testy ex-lover—are related; they transform into one another as one scene bleeds into the next. As appealing and entrancing as the myths Waters deploys are, they all have, at their core, anger, violence, hatred. It’s as much a part of the American spirit—the American story—as our freedom and far-sighted dreaming. (I sometimes feel like what Jeremiah hears as he twists the radio dial—“static and conjunto music, ads for improved stamina, angry men talking of politics and hate”—is as true an overview of our present culture as you’ll find.)
And this story has consequences that aren’t in any way symbolic. “Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?” Jeremiah remembers his uncle saying. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books.”
It’s an appealing thought, but not a realistic one—who can separate the land fromitsmyths?Waters drives this point home by giving us three layers of clarity, each balancing realism and mythology in a different way: the hyper-archetypal scenes when we follow Jeremiah in the third person; the first-person scenes where Jeremiah brings folk tropes (the girl as a bird in a cage, the singer pouring out his heart while the bartender pours him a drink) into the real world; and the tender “Frankie’s Gun” interludes, written in the framework of strict realism, where we see our culture passed from one generation to the next. Even in this latter category, imaginative understanding transforms the world-as-it-is: Francis’s son spends his days “trapped by violent fantasies,” “engaged in some imaginary battle with the spirits of the field.” And ultimately, this is what our world, and our country, are: an alchemy of solid ground and slippery myth, possibility and limitation, freedom and violence.
The story ends with Francis’s son walking away “as if he is done with the violence of the world.” But the entire thrust of the story reminds us that we can’t escape the violence; it saturates our land, our stories, our dreams; and it is certainly not done with him.
It’s an unnerving thought. But it’s simply the other side of the one that inspires us with its bigness and its possibilities. I’d like to leave the story with Jeremiah and Delia together, their “eyes peeled upward” toward “that clear blue Maine sky.”
“We were young,” Jeremiah says, “and the talk was real. We liked to dream together.” It’s a beautiful scene, and a beautiful dream. But it can become a nightmare.