In his biography, Klein writes that as early as 1946, with the advent of the cold war, there was a change in the job description of hero: "The Common Man had given way to the existential hero, riddled with anxiety. Abstract expressionist art, the sweet anarchy of Charlie Parker's sax, and psychological thrillers were all the rage in intellectual circles." 1 The modern hero was being born, and the myth of Woody Guthrie has been appropriately redrawn as the angst-filled existential hero and blent into the fragmented and angst-filled Postmodern Hero. Nothing does this so well as Klein's own biography. The other reconfiguring agent I will discuss is the new CD by Billy Bragg and the band Wilco. At the request of Woody's daughter, Nora, they have written their own music to accompany some of Woody's unused lyrics.
Klein's biography was my introduction to Woody Guthrie which seemed like a mistake at the time, as did the whole project, as I found it to be a dark, disturbing, difficult book to read. It should not, perhaps, be surprising that an account of a life lived during the Depression and World War II, filled with tragic, accidental fires, and ended by a fatal and debilitating disease, should be a dark and depressing book. Yet, Klein's approach only added to the gothic gloom. Klein gives a solid explanation of the historical and social influences in Woody's life, such as American Communism and the folk community in Greenwhich Village, but its emphasis on Woody's personality eclipsed his work as a songwriter and the positivity, humor, hope, and joy expressed in it. Only later, through other works and Woody's own music, was I able to appreciate these aspects of Woody, and have a more balanced and appreciative sense of the man.
Woody's sexuality received great attention in Klein's biography. Woody was an amateur pornographer of sorts. Klein samples some of Woody's steamier letters to his wife Marjorie and also tells us that Woody was brought up on obscenity charges for writing similar letters to other women. The sampling is impressive, a joy for the pornography connoiseur, but also evincing a wonderful writing style, vision, and emotion. Klein does well in introducing us to this Woody Guthrie who is a far cry from the dusty Refugee. The account of Woody's venture into the world of masturbation with the lingerie section of the Sears catalogue, goes, perhaps, above and beyond the goal of reminding us that Woody is a sexual being. Whether in good taste or not, the Woody Guthrie Klein portrays is accutely human and sexual, in keeping with America's modern and postmodern tastes and rules of celebrity.
Klein fits Woody with his Postmodern Hero's suit of personality through a style at once both psychoanalytic and dramatic. At one point, Klein describes a teen aged Woody staying with a friend's family:
"It was a good, safe time for him, and he almost became part of the family. Almost...but he never surrendered himself completely. There was a whole range of emotions, of worries and fears, of questions about his past and future that he'd never discuss with them. He'd either be on--singing and dancing and cracking wise--or off into long, deep silences....he sensed that if he stood apart, like the little tramp in the movies, he'd feel safer and be able to see more clearly. He sought aloneness, rather than privacy." 2
At another point, Klein analyzes Woody's compulsive writing:
"He obviously was quite concerned about his virility, which seemed to be fading...along with much of the rest of his personality. His life had become a series of long silences, interrutped by occasional antic outporings of words on paper.
The rhyming games and linguistic anarchy extended even to his address (Beach Haven became 'Bitch Heaven' in 'New Jerk Tity') and to his own name, which he garbled and distended and mocked. He signed hmself 'WWWW Gee Gee Gee Gee' and 'WW Geehawker' and 'Goody Wuthrie' and 'Woodridge Duthridge' and, quite frequently, 'Woodvine Twiner' as well as many others. His handwriting, which once had been tight and precise, began to spill out of line and past margins. In fact, he now had two distinct hanwritings--his normal script and an austere, terrifying print that he used mostly when drunk or angry. Often, he wrote with different-colored pens and pencils--sometimes each word was a different color, sometimes each letter--and his scrawl took on the tense, garish look of a kidnap note. He left his mark everywhere--in marginal notes on his typewritten letters, in comments scribbled a cross the pages of the books he read....
He had acquired, it seemed, the habits of a chronic graffiti artist...only worse, because it was his own life and work he was defacing, his own self that he seemed alienated from. He left his name everywhere; it was affixed dutifully on every page of every letter he wrote, as if he were trying to convince himself that he really was still there." 3
Klein also injects us into Woody's personality and psyche by siting some of his letters at length. They express his insecurities, what Klein calls his "rampaging self-pity" 4 and the ensuing instability of Huntington's disease:
"In a letter dated September 17, he regretted 'all the things I said the other day....There are red devils with pitch forks poking around in me somewhere and making me yell out some pretty bad things. It puzzles me to even try to think how a person with a mind like yours can even stand the presence of a mind like mine,'". 5
Some of the letters are even written in third person, as though Woody was not only ashamed of himself, but psychoanlayzing and observing himself like another person. Thus, the Postmodern Hero Klein is creating is fragmented as well as riddled with anxiety. The emphasis on Woody's disease makes this possible. Fragmentation is suggested in his use of third person in one letter and in his constant apologies to Marjorie for things he'd have undone and words he'd have unsaid in several letters. From these letters to the two styles of handwriting they may have been written in, Klein show us a complex and fragmented Woody Guthrie, tortured in mind and body.
In addition to pornographer, schysophrenic, and angst-filled masturbator, the Postmodern Hero appears in the form of a dirty little sprite. Not merely dusty, Woody could be down right unhygenic. He wouldn't bathe for days. It took Will Geer picking him up and dumping him in the tub to get Woody clean on one occassion. And Marjorie was instrumental to getting Woody to brush his teeth. The motherly role implicit in the way Marjorie organized Woody's life took more explicit form as their relationship developed. Woody would address Marjorie as "Mama" in his letters to her, and she would respond, calling him "Baby". Klein shows that even Woody's childlike nature was not without its complications, as much united with irresponsibility as was his expression of freedom, as well as insecurtiy and a non-traditional sexual-romantic relationship.
It is almost difficult to conceive of how such an image could be the image of a hero. Yet, Woody's optimism, humor, and energy come across in the biography as well, however much eclipsed by his seemier sides. Furthermore, this dark hero is the hero of our modern and postmodern times with its media of personality and appearances, and its introspective, narcissistic, and materialistic psychoanalysis. One of the most useful things about the myths of Woody Guthrie, is that they reveal a lot about the time periods in which they were created. Catching sight of the Dust Bowl Refugee in the background gives perspective to our Postmodern Hero on which we focus.
The biography is surely meant to shine a light throught the layers of mythology surrounding Woody Guthrie and reveal some of the complex man beneath. Similarly, Bragg and Wilco sought to explode our concept of Woody. "'You have to realize that Woody's reputation is based on about five percent of his output," Bragg told an interviewer. "We only know the dust bowl Woody. We have no idea about the period where he lived with his family on Mermaid Avenue (on Coney Island) and dreamed about making love to Ingrid Bergman on a volcano."6
Bragg and Wilco's Postmodern Hero looks something like Klein's. The song "Ingrid Bergman" higlights Woody's sexuality:
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman,
let's go make a picture
On the island of Stromboli, Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman, you're so perty,
you'd make any mountain quiver
You'd make fire fly from the crater,
This old mountain it's been waiting
All its life for you to work it
For your hand to touch its hardrock,
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman
If you'll walk across my camera,
I will flash the world your story,
I will pay you more than money, Ingrid Bergman
Not by pennies dimes nor quarters,
but with happy sons and daughters,
And they'll sing around Stromboli,
The diversity of song subject and style on Mermaid Avenue make for a many-faceted and many-voiced Woody Guthrie, with songs sung by no less than three very different performers, Billy Bragg, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and Natalie Merchant. It is, perhaps, a pleasant rendition of postmodern fragmentation, definately a statement about Woody's influence, relevance and richness. "She Came Along To Me" is a message of feminism and unity, while "Birds And Ships" is a sensitive and poetic love song sung my Natalie Merchant. "Hoodoo Voodoo" is in the tradition of Woody's kids' songs, a mouthful of word play and aliteration, as well as in the tradition of rock and roll. "Christ For President" expresses the urgency of Woody's message and the energy of his spirit in the rawness of Tweedy's voice. "One By One" is a song of pensive introspection and emotion to match any modern, confessional folk song."Hoodoo Voodoo"
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Bragg and Wilco's Postmodern Hero, is that he is a New Yorker, as the CD title and cover emphasize. The Postmodern Hero is no Dust Bowl Refugee with an endearing naivete, but a seasoned New York musician-songwriter, a man as taken with the sometimes dark realities of the city as the dark and real modern and postmodern world is taken with him. One reviewer of the CD put it this way: "Most important, he [Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie] expresses purely personal longing, pain and insecurity and forlorn 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." 7
The recent release of the Asch Recordings of Woody Guthrie on CD reflect a sensitivity to the type of hero Woody must be portrayed as, to be marketable today. The covers feature broodingly black and white pictures of Woody that suggest the intimacy and authenticity of an MTV unplugged session, and a certain gritiness. Woody, with his chin cocked high and cigarette held loosely between a pair of thin lips, is the model rebel-musician. He looks as "cool" as Alan Lomax once conceived him to be, but this is a different kind of "cool". The font is understated and modern, none of the happy exclamations that graced so many folk periodicals and records for so many years. No photographs of the Dust Bowl or pastel drawings of the Grand Coulee Dam grace these covers, only Woody, caught in his most moodily charismatic moments.
The danger in reconfiguring Woody as the Postmodern Hero is that we delve into his personality and his own introversion too much and lose sight of one of the most important features of Woody's character which was his outward-lookingness.
Woody was very much a creation, or at least an expression of his own time. Never in American history, perhaps, has there been an era in which people were so concerned with looking around themselves and documenting what they saw as the 1930's. I have suggested that the lens through which Woody saw life was forged in this era. Woody tells us as much, using the documentary forms of the 30's as metaphors for his own creative process which was also a sort of philosophy or ethic:
"'The reason why you want to write songs is what keeps you going. If you got enough reason to write I say that you can knock off two or 3 pretty fair songs a week and a pretty darn good one over the weekend....I get my words and tunes from the hungry folks and they get the credit for all I pause to scribble down....Music is some kind of electricity that makes a radio our of a man and the dial is in his head and he just sings according to how he's a feeling. The best stuff you can sing about is what you saw and if you look hard enough you can see plenty to sing about....'". 8
"'I begun to pace back and forth, keeping my gaze out the window, way down, watching the diapers and underwear blow from fire escapes and clothes lines on the back sides of the buildings....Limp papers whipped and beat upwards, rose into the air and fell head over heels, curving over backwards and sideways, over and over, loose sheets of newspaper with pictures of people and stories of people printed somewhere on them, turning loops in the air. And it was blow little paper blow! Twist down, come down on a pent-house porch, come down easy so'd the wind and the soot and smoke and the grit that gets in your eyes in the big city - and lay there in the sun and get faded and rotten. But keep on trying to tell your message, and keep on trying to be a picture of a man, because without that story and without that message printed on you there, you wouldn't be much. Remember, it's just maybe someday, some time, somebody will pick you up and look at your picture and read your message, and carry you in his pocket, and lay you on his shelf, and burn you in his stove. But he'll have your message in his head and he'll talk it and it'll get around. I'm blowing, and just as wild and whirling as you are, and lots of times I've been picked up, throwed down, and picked up; but my eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls,'". 9
Woody likens himself to a newspaper, camera, and radio, all absorbing and expressing the world outside of the self. Woody does assign himself a role in the process. The expression is ultimately his, but it is, at its best, an expression of what he sees outside of himself. And the need to document the world, and disseminate the documentations is what Woody pinpoints as the "reason" that keeps a person and a songwriter going. His songs, easy to remember and easy to sing for the sake of communication, are the newspapers blowing in the wind. This is Woody the Folk Hero, weilding his conceptual power in a war that is first and foremost a selfless endeavor.
Even his children's songs which are, perhaps, short changed by this appelation, evince this outwardlookingness. The songs are so wonderful, appealing to adults and children alike, because Woody so successfully expresses children's persepectives and speech."Car Song"
The penchant, today, to focus on Woody's personality, and his own introspection, our focus on the man and not the songs, is part of a larger cultural change, come with modernism and postmodernism. This change is reflected in "the role of singing hero in the protest cultures of the twentieth century,"10:
"At the beginning of the century, social potest was undertaken for the sake of all; as the century proceeded, it has been increasingly for the sake of the individual. In almost every case in the union era, the protest singer has presented his utopian visions in the second person plural (we). After the 1960s, the visions are presented in the first person (I, me, or you)....The motives of the protest singer ha[ve] become increasingly ignoble. Perhaps, as most of the literature suggests, when it entered the realm of pop culture, protest politics was corrupted by commercialism. The protest singer came to value his career and artistic integrity above the utopian One." 11
Even the protest culture of our day lacks the selflessness and extroversion which marked not only the protest culture of the 1930's, but even its popular culture.
Bragg and Wilco's CD is wonderful in that, in addition to discovering a bit of our postmodern selves in Woody Guthrie (and/or projecting them upon him), it teaches us to see Woody Guthrie in our music and in ourselves today. In doing so, we may recover not only a man, but a moment in our history, in which we thought and behaved quite differently, and make use of what we find there.