How do you tell a story that's about baseball and jazz...Civil War battles and Cold War paranoia...love and death...true stories and lies...and a boy growing up on the flat sprawl of West Texas? Acclaimed visual artist and singer-songwriter Terry Allen created a multimedia work—Dugout—that combines writing and painting, video/sculpture installations, and musical theater to narrate, in his words, "a love story, an investigation into how memory is invented...a kind of supernatural-jazz-sport-history-ghost-blood-fiction." A three-part work based loosely on the lives of Allen's parents, Dugout has been exhibited and performed in Texas, California, and New Mexico, as well as on National Public Radio.
This volume adds another dimension to the Dugout corpus by presenting the work in book form. The heart of the book is Dugout itself. Dugout I incorporates poetry, prose, and images of two- and three-dimensional artworks to evoke the memories of Allen's parents, a retired baseball player and a former jazz pianist. Dugout II: Hold On to the House universalizes Allen's West Texas roots by fictionalizing his childhood memories into a series of video tableaux projected upon an archetypal house structure. Dugout III: Warboy and the Backboard Blues presents the script of a musical theater piece that describes his parents' shock at the unexpected outer space arrival of their "whatsit" son—a boy growing up in a world so different from their own that he might as well be an alien.
Juxtaposed among the three parts of Dugout are essays by David Byrne, artist and cofounder of the Talking Heads; Dave Hickey, art critic and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant; Dana Friis-Hansen, Director of the Austin Museum of Art; and Terrie Sultan, Director of Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. The book also includes a CD of a live performance of Dugout III. This lively combination of Allen's work and others' responses adds an intriguing layer to the evocative, atmospheric, multisensory experience of Dugout.
Historian Terry Allen practices his calling somewhat differently from his more academic colleagues. Although this publication by the scholarly University of Texas Press puts him on the shelves alongside tenured professors, Allen is better known as a singer/songwriter who defies categorization; a visual artist who ricochets between drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and installations; a poet who channels voices from across different times, places, and cultures; and a maker of unexpected public monuments that please the passersby while gently provoking them to see the world differently.
Dugout, his epic of the Allen clan that lived in and around the Texas Panhandle, focuses on the post-Civil War period to the post-World War II era, but connects the primordial oceans to 1950s science fiction films and many other eras in between. Dugout does not take the traditional forms used for the genre of history. Rather than bound volumes embedded with primary documents or archival photographs, this quasi-genealogical study is offered to us in parts including a radio play, six assemblage tableaux, hundreds of pastel and ink drawings, an evening-length theater work accompanied by live music and monumental video projections, and a large-scale sculptural installation.
Allen doesn't write history, he salvages it. It is productive to consider Allen's work in terms of the word history, which derives from roots meaning "inquiry" and "knowing" or "learned," and whose definitions include the aggregate of past events; a record or narrative of past events; the discipline that records and interprets past human activity; and the continuum of events occurring in succession leading from the past to the present and even into the future.
Dugout encompasses all these definitions of history, but Allen's technique employs a salvager's mission—to save from loss or destruction. But "salvage" is also a noun: what is rescued, as from a ship, including the vessel, its crew, and cargo, or something that was saved from destruction or waste and put to further use. Its setting in the dry high plains of West Texas makes it somewhat surprising that throughout Dugout we find references to the sea and ships, but here the artist taps into the region's prehistory and the "Sea of Amarillo" which once covered these lands. And his characters are all survivors (clinging to their baggage) whose broken lives are patched together in this work, their beings, actions, emotions, and memories rendered whole through image fragments, scraps of dialogue, montages of memories, and even scavenged materials.
Some might say calling Allen a historian is a bit far-fetched but in fact he is that and much more. Storytelling is a rich Texas tradition and must be considered in its many forms, from the serious folklore of J. Frank Dobie illustrated by the master pictorialist Tom Lea, to the great blues musicians, and even quilters, sportscasters, and folk artists. But beyond Texas borders, when you think of Dugout, think of Shakespeare's history plays, the Mahabarata, Giotto's Arena Chapel, and other richly layered episodic narratives that don't shy away from using intimate details of life to explore grand human themes.
The Dugout cycle of works is loosely based on the lives of Allen's own parents: a former professional baseball player turned music and wrestling promoter and a honky-tonk piano player who had been kicked out of college for playing in an integrated combo. The roots of the project are found in a 1994 radio drama that also functions as a looping soundtrack for Dugout (Part I) (2003), an exhibition of six stages or sculptural tableaux and forty accompanying drawings. Dugout II (Hold On to the House) (2004) is a major installation work consisting of an archetypal house structure, hung from the ceiling and accompanied by family souvenirs, onto which films are projected. This installation forms a bridge to the theater work Dugout III: Warboy and the Backboard Blues (2003), a one-woman play written and directed by Allen, starring the artist's wife Jo Harvey Allen, which explores the artist's boyhood in postwar, bomb-weary America.
As a whole, Dugout is a series of poetic conversational vignettes and recollections that weave back and forth in time and place, skating across the kind of conventional History written with a capital H, or taught as a series of momentous political events, "written by the victors." Instead, Allen's project blends large movements (westward migration, prohibition, electrification, baseball, and the blues) with powerful personal moments based loosely on the stories he heard told by parents and their friends, itinerant musicians and sportsmen. Allen answers the question "Whose History?" by telling of two people whose lives were stitched together late in life after draining but entertaining careers and all the ailments that accompany them, whose lives were changed with the arrival of a son.
You can join the story at any point, more or less, but one good place is the image of a frontier dugout, "stuck half-in and half-out of the side of a small Oklahoma hill" like the one in which Allen's mother was born in 1905. Or the various baseball dugouts across the country where his father spent many an afternoon. Another dugout predates those of his parents, in a Civil War soldier's tale of a three-day battle "stuck in a dugout dirt trench full of blood up to his chin . . . couldn't even raise his head because they was more lead shot in the air then they was air."
In many ways, Dugout defies history, as it is composed of stories within stories, and moves backward and forward (and sometimes sideways), taking different vantage points on the same scenes, forever shifting the voices that do the telling. With its cycles of generations, it even hints of the future, and although this is not written into the work, Allen's own grandson, who carries the name of Allen's father, is now starting to play Little League baseball.
And then there is the question of fact and fiction. Allen confesses of the source material, "Truths, half-truths, half-lies, lies . . . now I don't even remember which is which." The wonderful thing about this work is that it paints a rich world so truthful that in the end, reality or History doesn't matter anymore.