Man Out of Time

Two albums devoted to Woody Guthrie discover new notes in the people's music. Does the song remain the same?

Some 50 years after the end of Guthrie's recording career, the dictatorship of electricity is a given. The elasticity of history allows events to be erased as easily as they occur. It's rumored that whoever eventually happened upon Woody's old guitar sanded off his legendary inscription and relaminated the wood finish. ASCAP and BMI have colonized the public domain through which Woody happily rambled. The only outlaw posture worth striking belongs to DJs mixing beats and breaks into a whirl of sound too committed to flux for any clear meaning to be articulated. Writing songs is a nostalgic, doomed affair, if not a knee-jerk reaction, since the project of perpetual re-creation has long since been usurped by the self-conscious disposability of the Tin Pan Alley pop that Woody loathed.

At this hardly fortuitous juncture, Guthrie's legacy falls into the hands of Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, two artists whose need to sift through the past has rarely helped them imagine the future. Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) is the result of an invitation from Guthrie's daughter Nora to page through her father's notebooks for clues to some forgotten synthesis of music and politics, folk tradition and contemporary relevance.

Rather than mythologizing Guthrie as a populist troubadour, Bragg's liner notes posit his identity as that of a self-conscious musical poet, perhaps "the first in a long line of singer songwriters." Placing the "real" man above his public image is usually a dubious project when dealing with popular music, where image is all we can access. But in this case, it's a brilliant, necessary misreading. Bragg uncovers the deep loneliness that Guthrie generally excluded from his canon, a profound alienation that drove him to create songs that celebrated the search for community.

Woody had a deep-seated hatred for "songs that made you feel low-down." But that doesn't mean he didn't write them. In fact, he wouldn't have hated them so if he hadn't felt the tug of those songs inside him. With a wistful sigh, Bragg plucks an acoustic dream of making love to "Ingrid Bergman" on the side of a volcano in Stromboli. Woody probably would have rollicked from the song's bashful compliments of "You're so purty" to its ejaculatory release "You make any mountain quiver/You make fire fly from the crater" with a boastful giddiness. But when Bragg sings, "This old mountain it's been waiting/For your hand to touch its hard rock," what might have been a reference to Little Woody sounds more like a cold, cold heart.

Bragg's Cockney sniffle is similarly at home on "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," where he seduces a girl by singing sad songs (even if it does sound like he's singing to her in a "monarchy" instead of a "minor key"). But if Mermaid Avenue liberates Guthrie's sadness, it allows Bragg to relax. And he couldn't have done it without Wilco answering his call. "Last night, or the night before last," Bragg announces to start the album, and a tuneless chorus picks up with "I don't know what night." This boozy, indeterminate call-and-response continues until Bragg's recollection of last night's events sends him on a drunken spree that ends with his head resting on the lap of "Walt Whitman's Niece." As he relates the tale, he sounds like the British equivalent of Woody's hobo, neither impressed nor amazed, just bemused by the turn of events.

By the same token, the challenge of rocking Guthrie out of the vaults doesn't faze Wilco much either. From country weeper to arena rocker, Jeff Tweedy has always possessed a healthier disregard for authenticity than your average roots farmer. But because he's lacked a lyrical agenda, Tweedy's versatility can seem more facile than exuberant. Tweedy's vocal pliability allows him to slip into Guthrie's characters, and Wilco's lack of stylistic commitment inspires a loose-limbed abandon. On "California Stars," he runs the line "Dream a dream of you" together until it sounds as soothing as a lullaby. "Hoodoo Voodoo" links a nonsense lyric to a giddy Blonde on Blonde organ riff, a left-handed barrelhouse piano roll straight out of Fats Domino, and a Morse-code cowbell twitch, guaranteed to make you "dance a goofy dance."

Mermaid Avenue envisions a future more distant and tenuous than Guthrie celebrated. "Maybe we'll have all of the fascists out of the way by then," Bragg-as-Woody sings, dreaming of a better time "10 million years from now." Still, his tone suggests that there is a future, and Billy's no longer impatient for that great leap forward. Fact is, he's satisfied with the baby steps Guthrie described in "I Planted a Seed." Bragg sings the now-dubious lines "Union songs/Union battles/All added up" with an unwavering confidence he rarely summons on his own records. It's as if he's telling us we can enjoy the pleasures of the moment without either demanding instant gratification or accepting defeat. And for a short moment, we do.

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