Songs for Woody

His spirits were sagging, but he wasn't one to circle the wagons and join the hardcore faithful--Guthrie wasn't going to soldier any better for Uncle Joe than he had for Uncle Sam. That the puritanical party line rankled Guthrie seems to come through on the ambivalent "Eisler on the Go," which Bragg sings in the voice of a ghost. (He also turns a reference to demagogic Mississippi representative John Rankin into "ranking," though perhaps that's a fitting act of erasure.) Here the man who once chose sides instead artfully sidesteps. The Eisler in question was Hanns, the radical German composer living in Hollywood who, along with his brother Gerhart, had told the House Un-American Activities Committee to go fuck themselves. Are you now or have you ever been, he was asked. "I would be a swindler if I called myself a Communist. I have no right," said Hanns. "The Communist underground workers in every country have proven that they are heroes. I am not a hero. I am a composer." It must have felt great, right up to when they threw him out of the country.

Guthrie honors Eisler but doesn't celebrate him; he writes a cryptic lament that trails into nothing. The romantic possibility that composers could be heroes was dying, Guthrie saw that, and the Eastern bloc that welcomed Eisler was hardly his big rock candy mountain. Facing a Cold War choice, Guthrie did what a lot of lefties did, and turned within. The words that echo in "Eisler" are the ones twinkling out at the end: "I don't know what I'll do."

The last creative period in Guthrie's life was also marked by the influence of Huntington's chorea, the hereditary brain condition that would kill him by 1967. The way his estimable biographer Joe Klein describes it in Woody Guthrie: A Life, Huntington's was breaking down Guthrie's brain, and the organ responded by in effect rewiring itself, creating new neural pathways and forming fresh associations in order to remain productive. Klein suggests Guthrie was undergoing an uncontrollable artistic rebirth that may have triggered the overabundant playfulness and sing-songy rhymes that mark his late writing. It makes sense, too, when you read the babble-on words of "Hoodoo Voodoo," but when you hear the song nothing is explained. This stuff lives outside the Cold War, the cortex, outside explanation. Here's a band and a singer (Jeff Tweedy, throwing himself at the word jumble like a firefly greeting a windshield) losing all self-consciousness. By putting aside doing all the little right things, one big Right Thing has happened. It happens over and over again on Mermaid Avenue. Here's some scribbling that'll last. Even if, as with "Hoodoo Voodoo"--"Hot breeze, old cheese, slicky slack fishy tails"--it'll take forever to know what it means.


Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue

Billy Bragg plays the Bottom Line July 2.

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