“Some people say that the Mississippi River is the backbone of the nation. They can say whatever they want, I won’t disagree with that statement … I don’t mind the West Coast and I don’t mind the East Coast … I’m just a plain ol’ Midwestern boy, gettin’ by …”
—Pokey LaFarge, “Central Time”
From his 2013 self-titled album, Pokey LaFarge may be “getting by” on “Central Time,” but to anyone really listening, the St. Louis songwriter is unabashedly thriving, his Midwestern provenance the crux of a singular civic hauteur. Both his inimitable old-timey trill and soulful recollections of love and loss prove preternaturally transportive—back to a time in which St. Louis, and the Rust Belt it deftly clinched, were on the up and up.
In LaFarge’s most recent album, Something in the Water, his final track acknowledges the region’s “dusty” history while reveling in its bluesy roots: “From the C-H-I to the S-T-L/ I was born raise a ruckus and do it well/ Knockin’ the dust off the rust belt tonight/ Take a jazz band with a country beat/ It’s Midwestern Swing for your dancin’ feet.” The fact that the Muddy Mississippi is today the second-most polluted US waterway—a “polluter’s paradise,” according Sarah MacFarland, state field associate for Environment Missouri—lends ironic gravity to the album’s title track.
LaFarge did not come out of nowhere, of course, and his quick rise to national, and international, fame over recent years speaks to a broader cultural impulse for valorizing the presumed authenticity of America’s past. As historian Amy Kenyon put it in a 2014 piece for Salon, “Many of us now derive pleasure in popular forms of nostalgia, actively seeking out films, music, memorabilia that allow us to swim in its waters; then some of us work very hard to dry ourselves off and break free from what we see as crass and backward-looking sentimentality.” It is safe to say that Something in the Water affords the opportunity to splash about in the past without reckoning with its stingrays.
It is here, perhaps, that one may grasp why LaFarge and artists like him arouse both praise and criticism; as Kenyon points out, nostalgia has also been “featured in postmodern theorizing in the fields of history, sociology and related academic disciplines, where … it has regularly been viewed as retrograde and politically unproductive.” At the same time, LaFarge embodies the past so earnestly (and, by the looks and sounds of it, completely), it feels unfair to dismiss his cultural output as just another instance of retromania.
Perfectly suited for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the soundtrack of which he contributes several covers, LaFarge’s ‘20s and ‘30s vibe harkens back to an era in which his own grandfather played banjo in a St. Louis club. As LaFarge relayed in a recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “[My] dad’s dad was a sort of an amateur historian, a World War II veteran, [and] always, you know, playing me Westerns and World War II documentaries … It just seemed like history was very present in my family.” Explaining his coming of age in the Midwest, LaFarge openly extols that history. “I grew up in between St. Louis and Chicago … so right in between two of the major Rust Belt cities. … It is—there’s a point of pride to a certain extent.”
LaFarge’s uncritical embrace of the past—whether in song composition, performance style, or sartorial embellishments—might seem utterly post-nostalgic, exhibiting a longing for something that the artist never himself experienced, and that most of his fans could never remember.
LaFarge was a born in 1983, in Bloomington, Illinois, at a time when the Rust Belt had already experienced decades of industrial decline, white flight, and economic malaise—especially in its urban centers. In the decade prior-to-Pokey (otherwise known as the 1970s), St. Louis city lost nearly 170,000 residents. In more recent years, many had hoped the 2010 census would show a plateau or even reversal of city depopulation in St. Louis, but in fact it showed an 8 percent drop from 2000. From this vantage, LaFarge’s uncritical embrace of the past—whether in song composition, performance style, or sartorial embellishments—might seem utterly post-nostalgic, exhibiting a longing for something that the artist never himself experienced, and that most of his fans could never remember.
In an article for Indy Magazine in 2015, Jordan Lawrence picks up on a similar vibe, commenting that LaFarge’s nostalgia “wobbles along the line between sincerity and artifice,” which arguably begs the question of whether channeling the past on its own makes one necessarily “artificial.” And if so, what is not? Lawrence describes Pokey’s trill as a “nasal warble that practically crackles with AM static,” and the title track for Something in the Water as “an idyllic pose, one that makes his ode to a woman who ‘does her makeup and hair/To cook fried chicken in her underwear’” tough to take.” While sharing Lawrence’s resistance to latent chauvinism—who would not?—I personally find something in the ludic overtones of “Something in the Water” charming enough that its sexist tropes seem risible.
Still, the artist’s fray with British folk-punk legend Billy Bragg at the 2014 WOMAdelaide, an Australian music festival, suggested some level of naivete on Pokey’s part, at least in terms of cultural and creative appropriation between the US and Europe. “When you have people like Billy Bragg who are saying that England, through Skiffle music, invented what we know as modern day Americana, giving false claim to his people, his country and blatantly disregarding the early country, blues, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll and soul performers of the United States, it is important to know your history, because there are people out there literally re-creating it to use it against you.” Given Bragg’s high regard for LaFarge, and what seems their shared proclivity for a rootsy, pro-labor populism, it seems odd that the latter would dismiss the former about something so inherently subjective. After all, the French lauded John Ford and Edgar Allan Poe long before they were taken seriously by American cognoscenti; regardless of origin, it is not uncommon for natives to underestimate the value of their cultural output.
The same tendency certainly stands for St. Louis; we have not been the best at celebrating The Great, which is why, from Josephine Baker to T.S. Eliot to Jon Hamm, so many of these Greats have taken off. Not so, Pokey, however, which leaves me admittedly both curious and impressed. Keeping all of this in mind, LaFarge’s 2015 video for “Something in the Water,” clearly shot in south St. Louis city, recast my perception of LaFarge and his seeming post-nostalgic trappings. LaFarge strums a guitar in the winter backyard of a South City house all too recognizable to any native. The opening shot reveals the signature south city alley, a 1980 “broke down El Camino” parked at its side. During the first refrain, LaFarge sprints down a one-way residential street that, with its impressive two-story brick houses and modest street-parked motor vehicles, is something you just do not see too often outside of St. Louis. In a playful shot in which Pokey’s gal bathes in a tub of milk, the intricate Tattersall tiles on the walls and floor are certainly no hired designer’s invention; what we are seeing is not full-on post-nostalgia but the endurance of something worth cherishing.
I thought back to my own childhood and to the adulthoods of so many still living—and thriving—in St. Louis, drinking whiskey below giant oaks in capacious backyards, playing ball in the alley, driving rundown cars of mythic proportions. And something terrific happened: I realized I was wrong.
That said, with the pin-up girlfriend sparring in baby-blue mitts from the back of the Camino, chomping watermelon in the backyard, or in apron and panties boogying beside Pokey on top of a wooden table, the video presents a South City hoosier’s wet dream. But is it a dream entirely? I thought back to my own childhood and to the adulthoods of so many still living—and thriving—in St. Louis, drinking whiskey below giant oaks in capacious backyards, playing ball in the alley, driving rundown cars of mythic proportions. And something terrific happened: I realized I was wrong.
If Pokey is post-nostalgic, it is only partway. If anything, his music and personae expose the extent to which older, simpler virtues—for worse and for better—survive in St. Louis in so many ways, and in ways so often taken for granted by those who have never lived anywhere else. As LaFarge explained in his interview with Lawrence, “I’ve always felt like the underdog playing this music. Maybe that’s why it’s lumped in with the whole Midwestern sentiment of being an underdog, of being a traditional American musician. When we’re considered to be novelty or curio, you’ve got to rebel against that stuff, man. You’ve got to fight for respectability.”
Pokey-fan or not, this seems a cause worth fighting for.