Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

Songs About America: This Land Is Your Land

I’ve decided to go back to weekly themes.  It seems I do my best writing when I have a specific topic.  So with July 4th around the corner, I thought I’d pick song about America.  Enjoy.

In grade school, I seemed to be in a pageant every month.  They were mostly historical and Biblical fluff (I went to a Christian school) aimed at entertaining parents and friends, rather proving any intellectual value.  Every once in a while we had a patriotic theme.  My fellow classmates dressed up as iconic American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Naturally, Washington did not tell lies and Lincoln lived in a log cabin.

As for the songs, they were standard patriotic fare – “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”  -to the applause of the audience.Interestingly, during one pageant we sang, “This Land is Your Land”.

Yes, Woody Guthrie’s anthem was performed by a group of school children.  “From California to the New York Island” seemed perfectly innocent, and evoked an image of The American Dream. As far as I can recall, we only sang the first verse and the chorus.   The verses where the narrator wanders through “heat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” were left out.  We sang it with no sense of irony or contempt.  Our rendition of “This Land is Your Land” was as straight an arrow.

As a 5th grader, I didn’t know the song was written by Woody Guthrie and was written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.  Even if I had known those facts, I’m sure the concept would have been lost on my feeble mind.  The song seemed just as cheesy as any of the others songs we were forced to sing, and not worth my time.

Years later while listening to The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues, I discovered the familiar chorus on the last track on the album.   Why the hell are they covering this piece of shit?  I wondered.  The Waterboys had sunk to a new low.  When I dubbed the album to a cassette, I purposely left it off.   The “proper” ending to the album was “The Stolen Child”, not the little ditty that came off as Celtic campfire song.

“You realize this is a Woody Guthrie song?” My older brother asked me once when the song came on.

“Who’s Woody Guthrie?” I asked.  “I thought it was a traditional song.”

He was shocked.  “No, no,” He replied, with a hint of disgust.  “He was a singer in the 1940s.  Big influence on Bob Dylan.”

“Oh ok,” I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.   I still hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, so this connection was hardly revelatory.  Besides, any type of music made before rock and roll, had nothing to offer me.

It wasn’t until I went to protest the Iraq War that I discovered the true meaning of the song.  Thousands of people were gathered in the cold streets of Pittsburgh.  It was snowing lightly, but no one seemed to mind.  Their minds were elsewhere.  As local artists and activists shouted their position from a nearby stage, the crowds cheered loudly.  By the time the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag took the stage, the crowd seemed ready for action.  Surely this band would get the momentum going.  Surprisingly, they came on stage with an acoustic guitar.  “This is a song that I’m sure all of you know,” leader singer Justin Sane announced, launching into “This Land is Your Land”.   Suddenly, its lyrics made sense.  It wasn’t quite the flag-waving anthem I had previously thought it to be.  It was an attack on a Capitalist society, and an out of touch government.  “This land is your land, this land is my land” was hardly an invitation.  It was a call to arms.  This land belongs us, and we will take it back if necessary.  As thousands of people sang Guthrie’s words, my attendance in the protest never felt more secure and right.  If we didn’t take control and voice our opposition, who would?

Though Guthrie’s song isn’t what most Americans consider to “be patriotic”, for me, it means more than “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  It offers hope, and possibility.   It’s not idealistic and naïve, but rather a rallying cry for those who might not otherwise have a voice.  Guthrie is an American icon, because he was able to express his views in song form, even if it wasn’t popular.  And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.

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Happy Bloomsday

Today is June 16th, otherwise known as Blomsday, the day on which James Joyce’ masterpiece Ulysses is set.  As such, I’d thought I’d re-post my essay on Bob Dylan and James Joyce for those new readers who may not have checked it out originally.  

 

Imagine today, if a young rock and roll artist emerged on the scene, writing dozens of songs capturing the zeitgeist. Other popular artists cover his songs, and his lyrics are studied like a pop-culture Bible.  Influential poets and thinkers, even called the “spokesman of a generation”, embrace him. In the process, he changes not only popular music but also the cultural landscape at a mere 24 years old.  Imagine this same artist, at the height of his popularity, turns his back on his audience picking up a new musical direction.  Viewed as a traitor to the scene, his new guise also redefining, becoming a standard by which everything else that follows is measured.  Except this no fictional rock and roll artist.  This is Bob Dylan’s influence and power in the mid 1960’s.

No singular artist in the latter half of the 20th century has redefined the popular musical world as much as Bob Dylan. It is often argued Dylan is a true artist because of his achievements and not just one in the rock and roll medium.  But what does being a true artist mean, and how does this apply to Dylan?  The answer might be found in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel,  A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce tackles artistic integrity through the protagonist Stephen Dedalus.  Throughout the novel, Joyce presents several forms, which must be followed in order for a person to truly become an artist.  Using Joyce’s outline and Stephen Dedalus as a model, the argument for Bob Dylan being seen as a true artist is even more evident.

Portrait follows the life of Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of Joyce) an ambitious young artist conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his artistic visions.  At the end of the novel, he discovers the only way to be an artist is to completely abandon the familiar, leaving Dublin for Paris.  As the novel progresses, Joyce’s words become more complex paralleling Stephen’s own revelation.  When Bob Dylan started his career, his lyrics, music, and persona moved in a similar fashion to Stephen’s.  When Dylan first arrived on the scene, he began as a protest-singe.  When he grew tired of “finger-pointing” (as he called it), he abandoned folk for rock and roll, again creating a standard by which almost other rock and roll is measured. Just as the world caught up to Dylan, he disappeared from the pubic eye, and created some of his best music while no one was watching. Dylan, like Stephen realized you must abandon the familiar and follow your own artistic visions.

In Portrait, Joyce (through Stephen) presents three forms outlining the progression of the artist.  The first form is the lyrical form “wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relationship to himself.”  In the epical form the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.”  The third and final form is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life.”

Dylan’s lyrical stage begins with his early albums and protest songs. Even early on, Dylan had major ambitions.  He wanted to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie.  Much like Guthrie defined the post-depression era with his songs, Dylan captured the spirit of the early 1960’s with songs such as Blowing in The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and Masters of War. Dylan sang these songs in the first person, essential to the lyrical stage. Yet at the same time, these songs connected with the masses because they reflected the turbulence that many felt during the early 1960’s.  These songs and others brought Dylan national attention; earning him the infamous label “the spokesman of a generation.”

Except Dylan wasn’t just interested in protest.  Much like Stephen feel hinged by Catholicism, Dylan felt similar to protest. Numerous artists were covering his songs, and soon many people were copying his style with less impressive results.  As everyone was waiting for Dylan to make the next profound statement, he had no interest in doing so. In 1964, less than a year after The Times They Are A-Changing, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, a collection of songs hardly touching on protest.  Another Side presents Dylan as funny (Motorpsycho Nightmare), heartwarming (To Ramona) and even scathing (I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)) – themes barely present on his previous three albums. Following the trends of rock groups like the Beatles, Dylan went even further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home – an ambitious album featuring two sides of music split between rock music and acoustic songs.

With Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had no intention on turning back, and writing more protest songs to appease his growing fan-base who worshipped his every single word.  With this stroke of genius, he had now reached the epical stage of the artist.  Joyce says the epical stage is reached when the  artist no longer presents himself in the first person and becomes part of an event.  Whereas Dylan’s early songs were mostly song from the first-person to reflect a greater truth, Dylan himself was barely present.  Even when he was, it was a fictionalized version of himself – as Joyce suggests, less personal.

Influenced by a combination of surrealism, drugs, and Beat poetry, Dylan’s lyrics reached a new sophistication and height.      Much like Joyce’s own Ulysses weaves in and out of character’s sub consciousness, narrative, and third person, Dylan was pursuing a similar path.  His songs became filled with literary, Biblical and historical figures doing bizarre acts, and taking part if bizarre situations.  And Dylan also put himself in the middle of all this craziness – the center of “epical event”. No more is this clear than Desolation Row off Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan’s first full rock album).  Desolation Row’s minutes follows characters such as Ophelia, Casanova, and TS Elliot who appear damned on a fictional placed called Desolation Row. Dylan himself does not appear until the last verse, where it is revealed he is on Desolation Row as well.

Dylan’s fictional self was no limited to his music, either.  Early in his career, he had been warm and funny in interviews – and most of all appeared sincere. Now, he traded his “every-man” image for that of a cynical hipster.  Constantly under the influence of many drugs, Dylan began answering interviews in a vague and mysterious manner and could sometimes be antagonistic.  When Blonde on Blondewas released in 1966, “the spokesman of a generation” was nowhere to be seen. The music was louder and wilder, the lyrics even more abstract  – but never lacking intelligence. Just as he did with modern folk music, Dylan was changing the rules for rock music.

Dylan’s retreat from the public eye leads to third and final form.  Joyce suggests it is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life”. Just as Stephen leaves Ireland and goes to Paris for his artistic integrity at the end ofPortrait, Dylan created some of his most celebrated music while no one was looking. Taking cues from Americana, he recorded dozens of songs in his New York home with The Hawks (who would later become the known as The Band) at his home in Woodstock, New York. Freer, funnier than anything Dylan had previously recorded these songs with no pretense. More than anything, these sessions showed Dylan truly comfortable in his own skin. Never meant for official release, these sessions became bootlegged for years – eventually released as The Basement Tapesin 1975.

When Stephen reappears in Ulysses, he is wiser and much more intelligent.  Yet, he lacks self-confidence even at one point dismissing his own ideas near the end of the novel.  Dylan too faced a similar problem after his mid 1960’s peak.  He had a hard time living up to being “Bob Dylan” -releasing almost unlistenable albums including the critically panned Self Portait.  Almost ten years after Highway 61,Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered another highpoint of his career.  In the past 10 years, he has enjoyed a renaissance – he has released four critically acclaimed albums and artists constantly cover his songs in concert. Dylan never stayed in the same place twice, and like Stephen discovered you “gotta keep on keeping on.”

 

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Song of the Day: Woody Guthrie: “This Land is Your Land”

Maybe one day I’ll write something that will do this song justice.  For now here’s the original Guthrie version.  Happy 4th of July!

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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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