By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Billy Bragg & Wilco
And it takes a night and a girl and a book of this
kind a long, long time to find its way back.
— Woody Guthrie, "Walt Whitman's Niece''
When we write stories about Woody Guthrie — the folk
singer whose guitar had scrawled on it, "This Machine
Kills Fascists'' — we inevitably get a handful of letters
from bunched-up patriots who remind us that Woody was a
"flaming Communist,'' damn us for our "poisonous
propaganda'' and insult that other threatening commie: Jane
Fonda. Such is the sorry state of Woody's legacy in his
ungrateful home state nearly 20 years after his death.
Leave it to a British folk singer — one who votes Labour,
of course — to help right the memory of the man who wrote
"This Land Is Your Land,'' "Union Maid,'' "Dust Storm
Disaster'' and, ironically, "I Ain't Got No Home.''
Guthrie's daughter, Nora, sought out Billy Bragg — a humble,
strong performer with political ideas nearly parallel to
the vocal and union-backing Guthrie — for her father's first
posthumous collaboration. The result undoubtedly will help
to give Guthrie long-overdue recognition on his native
soil, but more than that: this album, "Mermaid Avenue,''
does more to establish Woody in the pantheon of great
American champions than even "Library of Congress
Recordings,'' the ultimate collection of his output.
Guthrie was a prolific composer, but he usually failed
to write down the music or chords to his songs. Thus, when
he died in 1967, the tunes to thousands of unrecorded songs
died with him. The remaining reams of lyrics comprise
today's Woody Guthrie Archives, run by Nora in New York
City. At Nora's request, Bragg sifted through these
orphaned songs and — with the help of Jeff Tweedy and his
pioneering American roots band Wilco — wrote new music for
The album they recorded is a glowing testament to the
enduring power of Guthrie's imagination and conviction. By
turns raucous and witty, touching and insightful, these
songs — some of them a half century old — summon a musical
and social vitality the mainstream hasn't known since the
'60s. (And those "revolutions'' in the '60s were a direct
result of the ideas first publicly circulated by folk
singers like Guthrie.) Anyone remember when popular music
educated without preaching and entertained without
pandering? That music lives — and loves living — on "Mermaid
It's the collaboration with Bragg and Wilco, though,
that's essential to this vitality. Had the Archives simply
come across some lost recordings of Woody himself, the
inevitably tinny mid-century tapes and archaic production
quality would automatically date and distance the
sentiments. The same result would have come if this project
had been led by a Guthrie obsessive; the tunnel vision
would be exclusive — a very un-Woody quality. Even in the
electronic age, the oral traditions (the very basis of folk
music) transmit our culture, and it's the maintenance of
art throughout new generations that verifies the art's
worth as well as shaping the whole society. Bragg came to
Guthrie second-hand — through Dylan and the Byrds and Ry
Cooder — and it's perhaps because of his own distance from
Woody's material that he so easily embraces it, refreshes
it and tunes it up for a few more years of declaration in
the marketplace of ideas.
Bragg and Wilco have crafted an album that reveres
Woody's lean, direct lyrics while at the same time reveling
in the breadth of his character. Woody's oft-forgotten
playful side is brought to life in Tweedy's bouncy ramble
through the children's song "Hoodoo Voodoo,'' and while
the words to "Ingrid Bergman'' may seem on paper to be a
tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the actress, but Bragg's
breathtaking, simple delivery reveals more oft-forgotten
human qualities of Woody's: desire, romance, even lust. The
politics are here, too — still relevant in songs like
"Christ for President'' and the Frost-y (as in Robert)
"The Unwelcome Guest'' — but "Mermaid Avenue''
concentrates on love ("She Came Along to Me''), longing
("California Stars'') and beer-drinking sing-alongs
("Walt Whitman's Niece''). It's a fitting approach that
may aid us in the realization that Woody was a man — not
just an easy, dehumanizing label.
Funny, though, that it took a socialist Brit to bring
Woody back home. Even when Bragg — in his fairly thick,
English brogue — interjects spoken bridges into these
easy-going new tunes, the color never drains from the red
dirt on this album. No Oklahoman could listen to this
record and not conjure those heartfelt, enigmatic images of
this territory — the dust, the wheat, the sense of home and
hope, the pervading far-off look in every pair of eyes.
And that's the point. The fact that Woody's songs still
find life in the mouths of singers from every culture and
continent is proof of his lasting legacy — a legacy that
will outlive his detractors by centuries. Dust to dust.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
It took an Englishman to resuscitate the heart of an Oklahoma legend.
A few thousand miles from his native Britain, folksinger Billy Bragg explored Green Country this week, visiting various remnants of Woody Guthrie's legacy, from old friends to the site of his Okemah home. It's part of Bragg's effort to understand Woody and his music completely and in context, to sweep up whatever memories remain of the Dust Bowl days that inspired America's greatest folk singer, and to investigate evidence of the political climate that nurtured a left-wing unionist almost as staunch as Bragg himself.
That perspective will be necessary when launching the next great Woody Guthrie project: at the request of Woody's daughter, Nora, Bragg is writing music for several dozen long-lost Guthrie lyrics that have none. The Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City maintain more than a thousand “unfinished'' Guthrie songs — lyrics with no chords or musical notation written with them, only vague notes about the feel of a particular song or Woody's mood and location when he wrote it. Bragg, along with Jeff Tweedy and his Americana rock band Wilco, is gracing several dozen of these songs with new music for an album to be recorded in January and released next spring.
“It seemed to me that if we were going to get in close to Woody then we needed to come and at least see Okemah and Pampa (Texas), these places where he lived. You can read so much both of what Woody wrote about Oklahoma and what subsequent biographers have written, but we wanted to actually come down here and see what it looks like now — take that contemporary feel away with us — and to go out to Okemah and walk the streets that Woody walked and talk to the people about how they feel about him ... We're just trying to get a feel for it.''
Part of the history Bragg wanted to visit was Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom. He sat down on the Cain's stage this week and spoke with the Tulsa World about his trip, the Guthrie project, the immortal legacy of Guthrie's music and politics, and why exactly it's taken a Brit to get a firm handle on a crucial piece of American history.
The pairing is actually quite perfect. Bragg might as well be the Woody Guthrie of England. Spin magazine referred to him as “a cross between Woody Guthrie and Wreckless Eric,'' and writer Gary Graff said “his fiery mixture of the Clash's energy and Woody Guthrie's political fervor (is) ... irresistible.'' Rock journalist Ira Robbins describes Bragg this way: “Playing a solitary electric guitar and singing his pithy compositions in a gruff voice, Billy Bragg reintroduced the essence of folksinging — not the superficial trappings, but the deep-down Woody Guthrie activist/adventurer type — to the modern rock world.''
From his 1983 debut through last year's mature “William Bloke'' album, Bragg has used utterly simple musical tools to create enormous strength and depth in warm love songs (“Love Is Dangerous,'' “A Lover Sings'') and trenchant, socialist political commentary (“From Red to Blue,'' “Help Save the Youth of America'') alike.
Sound like any folksinger you know? An Okie leftist (his guitar bore the legend, “This machine kills fascists''), Woody Guthrie was an activist whose politics were anything but theoretical; he had suffered the wrongs he strove so passionately to correct. His stated goal was to raise people's consciousness and esteem every time he sang.
“Woody's kind of activism is still going on today, but it's being done in different ways,'' Bragg said. “A band like Rage Against the Machine is making ideological and political music in a non- ideological society. It's not easy. There's not the popular front organizing now that there was in the '30s and '40s that Woody was feeding off. You can't make political music in a vacuum.
“I made political music in the 1980s because Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister, and she was forcing everybody to take sides and manifest their ideas in a more political way. She was a great inspiration to us.'' He nearly betrayed a smile. “I'm accomplishing the same thing as Woody inasmuch as I'm taking information from one part of the world and moving it around to another part — that kind of balladeer tradition. I feel I am very much a part of that and that Woody and I at least have that in common.''
The two troubadours also share political perspectives — views from the left. Bragg began his drive to Oklahoma immediately after a Sept. 24 concert at an AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. During this interview, Bragg wore a T-shirt for the Detroit Sunday Journal, a newspaper that was published by striking union employees at the Detroit Free Press. He's well-acquainted with union politics and is well-equipped to perform and shape the music of the man who wrote, “Oh, you can't scare me / I'm sticking to the union.''
Still, Bragg acknowledges that the lack of ideological polarization in the '90s makes Woody's music seem, perhaps, quaint. So much of Guthrie's songs were topical, they must be viewed in context and in light of how that context has altered over the years.
“The important thing about Woody is that he represents one of the few periods in American history when there was some kind of left-wing cultural agenda,'' Bragg said. “When you listen to his stuff you can see that that was pretty important at the time. He gives us a sort of pre- McCarthy vision of America. So much of American history was rewritten around the time of the McCarthy witch hunts, and I think Woody suffered a lot from that.''
Indeed, Bragg said that during his visits last week to Okemah, he noticed that people still bore some shame over Woody's socialist affiliation.
“I'd like very much to ask the people who feel that way what they think a communist is. I think you'd find that their definition of a communist was not what Woody stood for at all ... He was right at a time when the ideas of popular-front communism were very relevant to the working people of America. Here in Oklahoma, the socialists were the third party before the war. But because of McCarthy, people have forgotten about that or simply left it out of history.
"But when you listen to Woody today, you understand that this did exist. If he has a message for us today it's simply that once there was a different political agenda, and it was more left- leaning, and that despite what the media tells us these days the left in America and the idea of unions and organizing and working people having a say is actually as American as mom and apple pie.''
The current working title for the album of new songs is “Union,'' chosen by Nora Guthrie. “She thinks it fits with the union between our generation and Woody's, as well as the strong relevance to what Woody wrote about,'' Bragg said.
Some of the unheard Woody songs are “what we think of as typical Woody protest songs,'' but many have little to do with politics. Bragg said he's trying to include a broad range of lyrics — “songs that perhaps you wouldn't expect Woody Guthrie to sing.'' For instance, there's one about flying saucers. There's also one about Joe DiMaggio. Bragg said that Nora Guthrie's goal for this project is to use these lyrics to bring a new dimension to Woody.
Bragg already has tried out some of the new songs. Last fall, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hosted a week-long seminar, “Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,'' culminating in a star-studded tribute show. On a bill including Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Pete Seeger and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, Bragg performed three songs, one of which was Woody's “Farmer Labor Train'' to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball.''
Then came the two new ones. “The Unwelcomed Guest'' is the tale of a Western Robin Hood explaining — to his horse — why he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Bragg then applied a shuffling rockabilly groove to a lyric called “Against the Law,'' in which Woody bemoaned that everything, even breathing, seemed to be illegal.
In collaborating with Woody, Bragg has to rely heavily on intuition and the notes Woody scribbled in the margins of these manuscripts.
“For instance, on the one about the flying saucers, he actually wrote on the manuscript, ‘supersonic boogie,' '' Bragg said. “It's a short song, only a couple of verses, and I found myself playing it kind of like Buddy Holly thing — not the same kind of chords but that same sort of rhythm. It fits because, a) it was written during the '50s and, b) Buddy Holly was from Lubbock, not far from Pampa.
“The music I'm trying to write for these songs is like a frame. I don't want to put modern rock on these songs, though I'm sure that, playing them with Wilco, there will be that angle to them. But that's not the point. The point is to cast these songs — frame them, if you like — in the music of popular America, in the music Woody was listening to while he was alive. You have to remember that Woody didn't die until 1967, so being in New York, he would have heard Beat poetry; he would have heard electric guitars, Chuck Berry, everything that was on the radio in the '50s; he would have heard R&B, as well as Bob Wills and Will Rogers.''
Bragg said he feels no great weight about “collaborating'' with Woody. There are, after all, still a thousand lyrics available for other artists to interpret if Bragg's take on his dozen or so don't meet with popular approval. Plus, Bragg said he received a lot of encouragement after his Hall of Fame performance.
“It was a good opportunity for me to try out these songs on a very critical audience of Woody scholars and friends and see what the reaction would be, see if they'd come up to me and say, ‘Forget it, son. You're wasting your time.' They very kindly didn't, and they gave me a lot of encouragement.''
Enough encouragement that Bragg dove headlong into the project and made this trip to Oklahoma to see some of the places Woody mentioned in his lyrics and life. It's a trip Bragg felt compelled to make if he were going to approach this project with respect.
“I could have just sat in England and read the manuscripts, but I do feel I would have left out a very important aspect,'' Bragg said. “Woody Guthrie is a quintessential American character, and he began here in Oklahoma, which isn't in the West, isn't in the Southwest, isn't in the South or the North; it's this giant crossroads. He ended up in New York, but he took his roots with him. He never really left Okemah and Pampa behind. So to do this project without coming down here, I wouldn't have been doing the full monty.''
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Arlo Guthrie had some hits back in the '60s, but a lot has happened
since then. A lot of new fans have been born, and a lot of them
have never even heard of “Alice's Restaurant.''
“Two years ago I had a part in an ABC show called ‘Birds of
Paradise,''' Guthrie said last week from a tour stop in Port
Angeles, Wash. (“the very north and westest-most tip of this country.'')
“It lasted a full season but it wasn't renewed. So I was
bumming around Honolulu one day — that's where we shot it — and I
was standing on a corner, and a local guy came up to me, a Hawaiian
guy, and he said, ‘Mr. Guthrie, we're so sorry they didn't pick up
your series again. We loved it here.' I said, ‘Well, I'll just go
back to singing,' and he said, ‘Oh, you sing, too?'''
Another blow hit him when he stopped to play a show at a
university in California. He was talking to the college student who
was organizing the event, and she said, “I'm not that familiar
with your old stuff. I saw you in (the 1992 film) ‘Roadside
Prophets,' so that's where it begins with me.''
“I realized that this gal was not aware of the 15 albums I'd
made for Warner (Bros.),'' Guthrie guffawed. “She'd maybe never
heard a record of mine at all. I suddenly realized there was a
world of people out there with no relation to Woodstock or ‘Alice's
Restaurant' or ‘City of New Orleans' or any of it. It's like having
a fresh slate.''
Yessir, that hair is white and it is long. Ol' Arlo's been
around the block a time or two or 10, and he couldn't be happier
about it. Actually, he said, having a portion of the audience find
“Alice's Restaurant'' fresh makes playing the 1967 hit a bit
easier 29 years later.
But Guthrie's show is no nostalgia trip. He's currently
supporting a new album with 10 new songs, “Mystic Journey,'' and
he's on the road with his son Abe — and that, he said, makes the
generation gap all the more easy to take.
“It's great having Abe out with me,'' Guthrie said. “We
offer each other unique but linked perspectives. He likes being on
the road like I do. I've always been a road warrior. Just give me a
bus and show me where to go. I've done that successfully for 30
years now, and I'm still married to the same girl.''
Guthrie's success has come on his own merits, too. He calmly
dodged the expectations that couldn't help but follow the son of
Woody Guthrie — the face of American folk music. He had his own
talents and he found his own style, scoring hits in the late '60s
with “Alice's Restaurant,'' which became an anthem of the anti-war
movement, and a cover of Steve Goodman's “City of New Orleans.''
He continued cranking out albums throughout the '70s, exploring
American musical traditions.
In the '80s, Guthrie decided to take control of his own
affairs. By 1983, he had parted ways with Warner Bros. and formed
his own record company, Rising Son Records. For three years,
Guthrie and his family dropped out of sight, hunkered down and
learned the intricacies of the record business.
“It really took us 10 years to figure out what we were
doing,'' he said. “I was just the guitar-playing,
singer-songwriter type. I didn't know anything about the business.''
First, Rising Son began acquiring and rereleasing Guthrie's
old albums, including 1986's “Someday,'' which Guthrie had
recorded three years earlier with Warner Bros. before the
separation. Then, with a little business savvy under his belt,
Guthrie began releasing some ambitious compilations. There was
“Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs,'' an elaborately packaged collection
of his father's children's music recorded by Guthrie and his
extended clan. There was also “Son of the Wind,'' a bunch of old cowboy
“I knew that one wasn't commercial. It was just a labor of
love,'' Guthrie said. “I could finally afford to do it because I
had my own record company.''
So he hasn't exactly been sitting around twiddling his thumbs
in the 10 years since “Someday,'' the last full-length record of
new, original Arlo songs.
“Mystic Journey'' is worth the wait. The 10 new songs, and a
cover of Charlie Chaplin's “You Are the Song,'' were penned within
the last three or four years and focus on love and spiritual
quests. “My songs are sung to those I've come to love,'' he sings
in the first track, “Moon Song.''
Spiritual quests are something Guthrie knows a bit about. His
1979 album “Outlasting the Blues'' first really showcased his
rigorous self-examination — a process spurred on by his conversion
to Catholicism. When he's not making music, he's continuing his own
“My parents were both people who believed in serving
humanity,'' he said. “You've got to do something — my dad did, my
mom did. We just grew up that way. My kids are being brought up
that way. You have to give back, especially when so many wonderful
things happen to you.''
Guthrie's main energies now are funneled into The Guthrie
Center, an interfaith church foundation providing for children
recovering from abuse and garnering support for HIV/AIDS and
community services of all kinds. Guthrie has been helping out with
AIDS patients a lot lately.
“Like anybody, I find myself living in a world where there's
an awful lot of sadness, sorrow and devastation,'' he said. “Most
of it has to do with AIDS. There are 40 million people around the
world infected with HIV, and when you consider the friends and
relatives and caretakers and lovers, you're talking about an awful
lot of people in hard times.
“So I've tried to do what I could to alleviate some of that
suffering by singing and raising money and playing benefits,
showing up at people's gatherings. It's not that showing up will
change someone's life, but it let's people know they're not alone.
“The lesson of this century that has to be learned before we
move onto the next one is that we never should have to let anyone
stand alone. We should support anyone who's suffering. I don't care
if it's war, pestilence, famines or AIDS — whatever, we can't let
anyone stand alone.''
“Mystic Journey'' is dedicated to Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a
woman Guthrie calls his spiritual leader. With her, he visits AIDS
hospices around the country. Recently, they were in Lazarus House,
a hospice in New Orleans. Guthrie was in the lobby talking with
someone, and Ma was at the bedside of a dying man. The man didn't
know Guthrie was in the building.
When Ma asked the man what she could do before he died,
Guthrie said he answered, “You know, it's kind of silly, but I've
always wanted to meet this singer named Arlo Guthrie. His music has
meant a lot to me. Have you heard of him?''
Ma's face didn't crack. She told the man to close his eyes,
and she went out to get Guthrie. When Guthrie entered the room, she
told the man to open his eyes.
“He just about died right then and there,'' Guthrie said.
“Just to see the expression on his face was incredible. He said,
‘Lady, I don't know who you are but you've got some powers like no
one I've ever met.'
“That was one of those brilliant moments when God was watching
over and taking care of the situation. This can happen to anybody.
You don't have to be a celebrity or have a social services degree
to make a difference in someone's life. You've just gotta be there.''
Arlo and Abe Guthrie
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: $19.50 in advance from The Ticket Office at Expo Square,
Mohawk Records and Starship Records and Tapes
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.