Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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I Dreamed I Saw Woody Guthrie Last Night

In his 1981 history Deep Blues, the rock critic and blues scholar Robert Palmer entertains a primal fantasy about Robert Johnson, who is said to have traveled with a drummer and an electric guitar in the months before his death. What, Palmer wonders, if the bluesman had lived to play John Hammond's 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall with Count Basie, Joe Turner, Meade Lux Lewis, and many others now renowned? In that seminal context, Palmer exclaims, Johnson and his band "probably would have created Chicago blues"--in other words, gotten within spitting distance of rock and roll.

Now, on their new album, Mermaid Avenue, the English folksinger Billy Bragg and the Midwestern roots-rockers Wilco have made rock and roll out of 15 previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics, the fruit of an invitation by Guthrie's daughter, Nora, to mine her father's vast archive. With Guthries's melodies lost and Bragg and Wilco sporting mixed track records, there were no guarantees on this project. Yet, gratifyingly and even astonishingly, it turned out to have more in common with that gleam in Palmer's eye than with its more literal precursor, the 1988 anthology Folkways: A Vision Shared--A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. There such rock worthies as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson, and John Mellencamp joined the likes of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Sweet Honey in the Rock in bringing 14 classic songs back to the public eye--initiating the CD-era revival of Guthrie, Leadbelly, and rest of the music Moe Asch recorded for his Folkways label.

Guthrie and Leadbelly hadn't been forgotten in 1988. But at a time when roots aficionados bypassed self-defined "folk" singers for subcultural pop like rockabilly and urban blues, these reinterpretations packed a wallop--they had texture, beat, soul. In the wake of Mermaid Avenue, however, they sound mannered and pious. And if that isn't enough, the third of Smithsonian Folkways's painstaking Woody Guthrie reissues, the recently released Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings, Vol. 3, sounds sere and tuneless by the same measure. Comparisons can distort as well as clarify, and these shouldn't be taken as final judgments on two estimable albums. But they suggest just how much magic has been worked on Mermaid Avenue.

Without in any way dishonoring Guthrie (although a few leftist sobersides may demur), Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy have reimagined him. Moreover, the Guthrie they create is present in his biography and, since he did write these lyrics, in his work as well. Anyone familiar with Guthrie's memoirs and, especially, Joe Klein's definitive Woody Guthrie: A Life, knows that the homespun, working-class, antifascist Okie of Popular Front myth was also a creation. And while some might prefer to believe the myth was foisted on him by political comrades with their eye on the heartland, it's more realistic (and far more respectful) to credit it directly to an artist whose own class background was a typical American muddle of thwarted success and half-realized gentility--and to grant that it served an aesthetic purpose that has now faded away.

Guthrie was a struggling entertainer and author who lived in Brooklyn and was married to a Jewish Martha Graham dancer. The folksy persona he projected--the updated Wobbly hobo who'd found solidarity among Soviet sympathizers and union men--reflected his own convictions. But it could have been custom-made for his most loyal audience. It ignored Woody the compulsive writer, Woody the tragedy-stricken sufferer, Woody the hard-drinking rowdy, Woody the sweetly sex-mad amateur pornographer who once did time on an obscene mail charge--all traits brought front and center by his new interpreters. Bragg grew up on the Clash and emblazoned one of his albums with the motto "Capitalism Is Killing Music," but he has always been girl-crazy for a left-wing guitar-strummer (or a punk), while Tweedy is a backward-looking rock and roller who has never had much to say. They're the perfect pair to make clear that Guthrie, far from a predictable Popular Front totem, was a prophetic rock and roller with a whole lot to say. All he needed was a band and a little freedom.

So their Woody puts the make on a bunch of girls, including one who says she's Walt Whitman's niece and one named Nora, just like his own little one. He forgets the kiddie ditties he made a little money off and comes on to his wife with nonsense verse that mentions both diapers and some playfully adult-sounding "kissles." He worries about the Communist composer Hans Eisler and fantasizes about Ingrid Bergman rather more lewdly than he once did in the left press. Most important of all, he expresses purely personal longing and pain and insecurity, and forlornly hopes--with a vanity his friends knew well and fans of his shambling everyman act rarely glimpsed--that "this scribbling" will earn him a little immortality.

Not that the politics disappear, and certainly not that they should. There's a union anthem that sounds like the Band, some agitprop promoting Christ for president or even king, and a song that proffers a highly unconventional suggestion for 1942: "But I'm sure the women are equal and they may be ahead of the men." But the broadened emotional context Bragg and Wilco provide for these ideas turns the liberation they dream more literal and more seductive.

It was Bragg whom Nora Guthrie first approached with this audacious project, and it says a great deal for him that he recognized that his leftism only half-equipped him to bring it off. Woody Guthrie was as American as it gets, and the Missouri-based Wilco provided that element as few other contemporaries could have. Though Bragg's musical signature is a punkishly abrasive nasality, he has always been a surprising melodist, and on balance the tunes he contributes are even more memorable than those from Tweedy and Jay Bennett, Wilco's keyboard player. Bragg's "Walt Whitman's Niece" is an instant classic, and whether he found the notes of "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" in a Child ballad or some hidden cranny of his Scottish soul, it sounds as ancient and inevitable as "The Cuckoo" or "Black Jack Davy." But Wilco's signature, a spacious stylistic sweep from blues to bluegrass, brings all this music to a life no gaggle of well-schooled Brits or Nashville pros could have approached. In fact, when Bragg and his own punky band played "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" at the Guinness Fleadh concert on Randalls Island June 14, the melody on the record vanished mysteriously into the frantic beats. The Guthrie songs in Wilco's Fleadh set remained undiminished, always bent to Tweedy's aw-shucks drawl and a groove that rocked as easily over a small-town oompah drum as a '50s plink-plink-plink ostinato.

"Woody had the devil in him just as surely as Robert Johnson had the devil in him," Bragg has said. But the rock and roll Robert Palmer fancies Johnson forging would have confronted Satan more fiercely than Muddy Waters ever could have. The rock and roll Bragg and Wilco invent for Woody Guthrie is different. It fobs Old Scratch off with humankindness and tomfoolery. It rewrites history a little, shaking off the inhibitions of the past with a postmodern shrug as it reminds us all what hopeful music used to feel like. It's the best of two worlds.

New York Times, June 28, 1998