I love call and response songs. It’s an old trick to be sure, but in the case of “Walt Whitman’s Niece” it’s sublime. Kicking off the Mermaid Avenue album, “Walt Whitman’s Niece” has got to be one of the greatest opening numbers ever. To most, Woody Guthrie is known only for his leftist folk leanings. But like Bob Dylan, what’s sometimes forgotten is his sense of humor. And humor is all over “Walt Whitman’s Niece”. There’s lots of clever sexual puns, and the music sounds like a hootenanny with Billy Bragg leading the party.
The narrator at first is not very forthcoming about the adventure he wants to tell. (Bragg singing the call part of the song.)Every time he attempts to tell part of the story he confesses that he can’t say anything. (The rest of Wilco singing the response here.) He won’t reveal which night it happened (was it last night or the night before that?) which seamen he hung out with, and he leaves out the names of the two girls that may or may not have been upstairs. Eventually the girl reads him a book of poem and she reads he lays down his head. Naturally though of course he can’t say which head.
The song breaks a bit for a spoken-word section. Now the narrator is left to himself – his seamen buddy and the girl had “moved off”. He’s most likely drunk at this point, and trying to piece together what happened. Apparently the girl was the niece of Walt Whitman, as best as the seamen could recollect. According to the sailor she told them she was a niece of Whitman, but not which niece. Not all he has to do is get out of there but “it takes a night, a girl, and a book of this kind a long long time to get back.”
After the break, and a pretty awesome harmonica solo, it’s back to the call and response. But its even more absurd this go around. Bragg pushes his band-mates with each call, and the responses get louder until finally they’re both exhausted and the band just jams away until the fade-out.
“Walt Whitman’s Niece” had been a favorite of mine for awhile. Not only do I find it endlessly amusing, but it’s the perfect “go-to” song. I’m always in a happy mood whenever I put it on and it lead perfectly into the majestic (albeit more serious) “California Stars”.
“Walt Whitman’s Niece” from Mermaid Avenue: