Woody Guthrie bequeathed us his jumble. Willing in life to play straight man for many right causes, in death he left a tangle of words and roles. He practiced reckless disregard, saving up lyrics and then forgetting about them. He wrote the song eventually titled “This Land Is Your Land” and then stuck it away for years; he never got around to writing music for “Deportee,” which became another one of his most famous compositions. He was a pack rat saving for some other day, and it wasn’t particularly important to him if that day ever came.
But part of the disregard maybe wasn’t so reckless: part of it built an image he was happy with, one that’s lasted to this day. To the Stalinists he’s a glorious martyr, to the progressives Tom Joad with a guitar, to the Sing Out generation he’s how you get to Dylan. He presented himself, in his untrustworthy autobiography Bound for Glory, as an angel with a dirty face, one of the people but far, far cuter. On Mermaid Avenue, he shows he knew better. “I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere, but I feel like this scribbling might stay,” he wrote in a song he never lived to record. It has.
And thank the hobo gods Billy Bragg wasn’t searching for closure himself when Guthrie’s daughter Nora invited him to root through the scores of lyrics Guthrie left behind unrecordedand sans music, many dating from the last great creative period of his life. Working with the band Wilco on Mermaid Avenue, Bragg totally muddies the waters. This is a Guthrie we don’t know, dirty, tender, so protean he was predicting the feminine spirit would crush the fascists and then turning around and writing love songs to Ingrid Bergman. Half the record is love songs, lust songs, or lech songs, a proportion Guthrie didn’t dare on his own. If only he’d lived to record these songs–it would have put such a knot in Pete Seeger’s knickers. The “Walt Whitman’s Niece” created here is a farfisa-and-clavinet romp that bubbles with wooly-booly ambiguity, the words recounting a night spent with a seaman buddy and a pair of women. But Guthrie’s tight-lipped, laughing at us–he pretends to tell a story but with every detail giggles he’ll not disclose a word more. And then Woody’s gal says she’s the niece of Whitman, and he doesn’t know whether to buy that, either. Everything’s a game, the storyteller can’t be trusted, and he says it doesn’t matter, that what matters is being in a certain room, with a certain blue rug and your head buried deep in a certain lap. We think of Woody Guthrie as a line-drawer who always knew where he stood in the battles. But here’s a Guthrie who spits at the ground and yelps, “I ain’t telling,” and does a little dirty dance, too.
The familiar Guthrie of the recent four-volume Smithsonian set The Asch Sessions was the original Joe Strummer, hammering out anthems with the force of a pickax. There’s a mistrust for chops, and for vocal abandon, as if both were tics of the ruling class. This creates an interesting tension, because if he wasn’t no sissified virtuoso, Guthrie also never much liked the excesses of the hootenanny, the illusion that everybody could sing along, that with folk music everybody was an artist. He believed in himself as an artist–not as a simple tribune of the people, not as a natural-born Dust Bowl genius, but as somebody who worked, in his own way, at his craft. That craft was a process going on in his head all the time.
Wilco and Bragg glorify the road artist, and feel little need to venerate the sound of Guthrie’s recordings. There’s National steel and bouzouki and Hammond B3 all over the place, and as much stark keyboard as chiming guitars. Bragg has spent most of his career grooming his anthemic yearnings in an ever less anthemic era; Wilco were born when Jeff Tweedy woke up with Uncle Tupelo ringing one time too many in his ears. It must have been exciting to take this project on, but after they both said yes it must have caused a few sleepless nights–who wants to fuck up Woody? So instead they fuck with Woody. There’s a great union song with an organ that defies solidarity and a bit of fluff about Jesus running for president that Tweedy sings better than Guthrie would have allowed himself to–he revels in its crazy temperance-band zeal. They use a range of mutually exclusive anachronistic sounds to reach back in time, and the more you listen to Mermaid the farther in the past the sound seems to go. It’s never simple, it just feels that way.
Mermaid Avenue: reads like a hand-tinted postcard. This was the Coney Island street where Guthrie lived with his second wife Marjorie in the late ’40s and early ’50s. The name evokes the annual mermaid parade, Cyclone rides, and seashells by the seashore, and might also suggest a leisurely existence. Truth is, the Mermaid Avenue years were some of Guthrie’s most difficult. His daughter Cathy died in a freakish fire there shortly after the family moved in. Also, the Cold War was beginning, and while hardcore party members knew how to function in a state of siege, for the content providers on the periphery like Guthrie–he’d played countless party functions, rallies, pickets, and marches, and had defended Communism on many occasions–the floor dropped out. Unions whose conventions he’d lit up just a few years before were weeding out reds; the workers he’d championed were now attacking radical singer Paul Robeson in Peekskill. With the blacklist on, gigs became rarer.
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 plays the Bottom Line July 2.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 1998