Tag Archives: Billy Bragg

Song of the Day – “Walt Whitman’s Niece” – Billy Bragg & Wilco

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:

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Another Collaborative Album – Mermaid Avenue

Yesterday, I gave my praises to Elvis Costello and Allen Touissant’s The River in Reverse. It’s a rare breed of an album – a true collaboration whether neither artist is overshadowed by the other.  Here’s another of my favorite collaboration albums.  (Note: I know there a tons of jazz albums in this category, but unfortunately my jazz collection is somewhat lacking.

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue

This collaboration is in my top 10 albums of all time.  Taking unfinished Woody Guthrie lyrics as the starting point Billy Bragg and Wilco create gem of a record.  Both artists update Guthrie’s lyrics but still retain the spirit of his work.  The album begins with the hysterical “Walt Whitman’s Niece”  with its call and refrain. (Key lyric: “And as she read, I laid my head.  But I can’t tell which head.”)  Then there’s the gorgeous  “California Stars”.  If you never believed in just running off to get away from it all, this song might change your mind.  Of course not of all of it is fun – being an album full of Woody Guthrie lyrics.  “Eisler on the Go” is Guthrie’s response to Han Eisler being deported by the US Government during the Cold War.  If I can’t think of an album to listen to, I almost always pick up Mermaid Avenue and am never disappointed.

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Records Worth Revisiting

(Since I started this a mostly as music blog – though I do occasionally write on other subjects – I thought it might be fun to include a series of posts devoted to albums that I love but have kind of disappeared under the radar for some reason or another.)  

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue

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   The story goes that before his death, Woody Guthrie left a bunch of unpublished lyrics offering them to Dylan.  Dylan seems to confirm this in his memoir Chronicles Vol 1 (and just where the hell is Volume 2, Bob?).  I say “seems to” because it’s always hard to figure out the truth with Dylan.  In the memoir, Dylan shows up at Guthrie’s house only to be told off by the babysitter.  

  As much as I love Bob Dylan, I’m hesitant to think of the actual result.  For the first few years of his career, Dylan was intent on copying Guthrie while creating his own sound, so it would have been superfluous for him to record an entire album of Guthrie originals.  

  Which brings us to Mermaid Avenue.  Decades later, Guthrie’s daughter offers some of the unfinished songs to Billy Bragg, who then recruits Wilco to also contribute to the album.  Really, you couldn’t ask for a better combination of musicians to create an album like this.  Bragg whose leftist politics picks up Guthrie’s revolutionary spirit, and Wilco one of the few American bands in the past decade who constantly pushed the limits of what rock can achieve in the 21st century.  

   I’ve always been attached to this album for a number of reasons.  Unlike a lot of other modern folk leaning records, the album manages to sound contemporary and timeless at the same time.  It also contains perhaps three of the best opening tracks on record (Walt Whitman’s Niece, California Stars, Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key).  Walt Whitman’s Niece lyrically is really an absurd song, yet with its call and response would in a perfect world, be the ultimate bar anthem.   California Stars has kind of become the anthem from the album, with both Bragg and Wilco still performing in their set-lists.  

   I suppose what really makes this album a success is that it actually works.  Usually side projects like these fall flat on their faces. The musicians try to sound too much like their heroes. Or take the extreme route and create something that is unlistenable, and does not capture the spirit of the original musician.  But trying to modernize yet still have Guthrie’s folk spirit is a testament to both Wilco and Bragg.  Hoodoo Voodoo’s carnival sound perfectly fits the fun and childish lyrics. She Came Along to Me’s defiant attitude is expressed in the way Bragg sings “and maybe we’ll have all the fascists out of the way by then.” It doesn’t seem like a lament but rather hopeful.  

The second volume of Mermaid Avenue (which I like) is not nearly as good.  Perhaps this kind of combination could only occur once.  And as much as I like Billy Bragg, Wilco and Woody Guthrie, I think it’s the best thing to come from all three.  

 

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