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.''
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.