Woody Guthrie Saves Rock and Roll

By now you've probably heard the news. The greatest rock-and-roll record of 1998 featured 50-year-old songs by a guy who's 10 years deader than Elvis. You've even seen it in these pages ("Worthy of Note," September-October 1998).

But old news or not, I can't get Mermaid Avenue off my mind. That's the name of the epic collaboration between English lefty singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, American roots-rock band Wilco, and Woody Guthrie's old notebooks. Guthrie's daughter, Nora, gave Bragg and Wilco access to 1,000 songs Woody left behind without tunes. The idea was to put them in a contemporary musical context that would reflect Guthrie's spirit as an American popular artist and political populist.

Why pick a Brit like Bragg to interpret this most American of artists? Well, for one thing, as a European, Bragg understands the Left political culture in which Woody operated. That culture vanished from these shores during the '50s Red Scare. The only Americans who know it are octogenarians, historians, or both.

Why Wilco? Because unlike Harvard dropout Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie was not a "folk singer." At least not until he got to New York and people started calling him one. Before that he was just a country singer who liked to talk. Even Guthrie's homegrown Christian socialism was not unusual in the east Oklahoma of his boyhood. The Wilco boys, southern Missourians themselves, are as much heirs to Guthrie's musical tradition as Bragg is to his political one. They simply incorporate the post-Elvis extensions of Guthrie's Southern hillbilly blues.

Also, hailing from post-Christian Britain, Billy Bragg would have problems with Guthrie's Christianity. Guthrie's New York buddies did, too. Many of them have recalled that Guthrie, who wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper, was turned down for CP membership because of his religiosity. Wilco does the song "Christ for President" on Mermaid Avenue.

From this description, Mermaid Avenue could be a clever novelty, or maybe a maudlin tribute. But it is a living, breathing work of 1990s rock and roll, and its influence will ripple into the next century.

MERMAID AVENUE adds up to something even greater than the sum of its parts. For one thing, it is a creation for these times. Guthrie wrote some of these lyrics in the postwar era, when the revolutionary dreams of the 1930s were going on ice. The hard-edged realistic hope of those songs seems appropriate to our own New World Order, and Bragg's voice captures it well. As a rock group, Wilco represents a turn-of-the-century roots movement that is growing in reaction to the soullessness and placelessness of globalized culture. Their ragged beats and rough textures fly in the face of contemporary computer-perfect expectations, and their good humor and capacity for sincerity are an affront to the postmodern ethos of compulsive irony.

But there's more to Mermaid Avenue than that. The album begins with a song called "Walt Whitman's Niece," which seems to evoke a sense of American populist tradition that reaches back past the 1930s, and past this century, into the age of steamboats and abolitionism. It's a claim to a spiritual heritage. It says that there is an America other than the one of commerce and empire. It's the land that was made for you and me. And even at this late date we can uncover it and call it our own.

With its collision of cultures and generations, and its fusion of political and artistic aspirations, Mermaid Avenue adds up to something like a vision of life seized whole. It's something Guthrie might have called a vision of "union." You get an explicit statement of that vision in the song "I Guess I Planted," which sees humanity "Separated, hurt, apart and afraid and hungry for the union." To Guthrie "union" meant a lot more than the Congress of Industrial Organizations, though that was certainly part of it. It also meant a mystical union, something like the mystical Body of Christ, or the communion of the saints. Guthrie didn't know those words, and it's a good thing, because he had to find an American vernacular to express the underlying unity of creation yearning for its Creator. He came up with that mysterious "voice" that keeps calling from American mountains, deserts, and welfare lines.

For Guthrie, "union" meant people joined together to get a fair wage in the fields or factories; people joined together across the world to defeat fascism; or people joined together in the bedroom to find their joy. It was all the same union. We catch a glimpse of that in the Mermaid Avenue song "She Came Along to Me," in which thoughts of his lover lead to thoughts on the equality of women, which lead to thoughts on the yin-yang of erotic attraction, which lead to a utopian vision of humanity without creeds or colors or oppression. And—here's the trick—the last verse of the song is as personal and heartfelt as the first, and the connection among them all is utterly organic.

This is a rock-and-roll record with the scope and ambition of the greatest American novels. There hasn't been one of those in a long time. I'd almost stopped looking for another. But here it is.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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