Man Out of Time

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

In early May, 1941, Woody Guthrie loaded a rickety Pontiac with wife, children, and possessions, his desperate mind fixing on a tentative job prospect and a new beginning. Though the fix he was in resembled that of the confused, battered people that populated his songs, Woody Guthrie was no mortgaged Okie migrant, no Tom Joad. He was a nationally recognized troubadour and former New York radio star. It wasn't the dusty soil that had driven him to desperation, but his depleted imagination, drained by the demands for "authenticity" and "American originality" placed on it by a slew of radio sponsors, leftist folk epicures, and his own expectations. In fact, Guthrie wasn't even leaving showbiz altogether; he was on his way to make a movie in Oregon.

The bit of celluloid propaganda for which the Guthries straggled North--a patriotic documentary of the construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams--was never filmed; its funding was siphoned into the U.S. war chest as American involvement overseas became inevitable. But Woody found more pity among the dam builders than the Okies ever got in California, and the Bonneville Power Authority hired him as a day laborer for $266.66 a month. And as he spent a month surveying the construction, 26 songs gushed forth from Woody's pen, songs drunk with hope for the possibilities of collective creation.

Among the giddiest was "Talking Columbia." A pumping harmonica launches into a tune, a talking blues whose roots have been traced back to the days of minstrelsy. But the imagery is wildly expansive, more like Whitman kicked into overdrive than any folk blues or country ballad.

Before this public works project, he sings, the Columbia was "a river that was going to waste." But Woody glimpsed hints of a future socialism in this massive federal labor initiative. Not only would the dam provide irrigation for struggling farmers, it would yoke previously uncontrolled natural forces to their proper task--to produce stuff for people, products ranging from "fertilizer to sewing machines to atomic bedrooms and plastic." At this point, Guthrie cuts short and strums on, building suspense. Finally he bursts out with an epochal aside: "Everything's gonna be plastic!" Guthrie crows, launching into a list of soon-to-be-met needs, a list that might have continued indefinitely if he weren't so impatient to proclaim the coda: "Of course, I don't like dictators none myself, but I think the whole country oughta be run by...

e-lec-tricity!"

The irony here is that for Woody the world was already plastic--a malleable hunk of raw material waiting to be synthesized into meaning by any man who wasn't afraid of hard work. Not just the woods and the water and the land (which, as he sang, were "made for you and me"). Historical events and musical tradition were to be bent to meet immediate needs. The tune for "So Long It's Been Good to Know You" was adapted from the '20s folk song "Billy the Kid." Early on, the lyrics mutated to describe an apocalyptic dust storm; later they rallied behind the war effort; and, during a radio performance on Model Tobacco's Pipe Smoking Time, they even shilled for his corporate sponsors.

The past didn't need to be preserved. It needed to be utilized to create a future. So although the version of "Talking Columbia" included on the just-released set of 1940s Guthrie recordings, Hard Travelin', was recorded six years after it was written, Woody hesitates while singing it as if the words are just striking him. At any point during the performance, it seems as if a flash of insight or a memory lapse could force him to veer off into a new set of unexpected images. A new invocation of power.

Hard Travelin' is the third in a four-volume set of material culled from the recordings Guthrie made in New York with Folkways founder Moe Asch from 1944 to 1947. Volume 1 was a master stroke, rescuing "This Land Is Your Land" from memories of earnest grade-school sing-alongs lead by hippie-holdovers-turned-teachers.

Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place was lucky enough to discover a version of "This Land" long thought unrecorded, in which Woody roams and rambles past a sign marked "Private Property." "But on the back side," Woody notes, "it didn't say nothing." Place and Guthrie scholar Guy Logsdon situate the anthem at the beginning, middle, and end of the album, surrounding it with "Jesus Christ" (about the radical carpenter rather than the Son of God) and "Mr. Lindbergh" (about Lindbergh the fascist-sympathizing isolationist, not Lindbergh the transatlantic aviator). In doing so, they document the defiant socialist roots of Guthrie's populism.

But Volume 3 documents Woody's belief in the power of plasticity, the ability to bend tradition to his vision as the Bonneville harnessed the Columbia River. Most of the songs were inspired by Woody's ability to link two events: the proliferation of the union movement and World War II. A frequenter of union rallies, Woody adopted folk melodies so everyone could sing along with him. A patriot who despised capitalism, Woody adopted Hitler as a folk demon so everyone could hate along with him.

Woody expanded the definition of fascism to include anyone whose greed set up obstacles to people who wanted to work and sing together. "It's a union world I'm fighting for," he declared, always sure not to specify whether that battle raged overseas or on picket lines against little Hitlers like scabs, bosses, and anti-labor vigilantes. As he inscribed on his guitar, "This Machine Kills Fascists."

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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