Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, September 04, 2004


Running an afternoon errand in the car I heard on the local “world of music and ideas” Pacifica station Woody Guthrie ballad-izing about anti-union thugs murdering sit-down-strikers.

It was only the 2nd time in my life I’ve heard Guthrie on the radio, the first time being while working on a fish-processing barge anchored off Clark’s Point, Alaska in 1983. I’ve heard Hank Williams on the radio only once or twice – a few months ago (I was so excited I blogged about it) and maybe once before that, though I’m not sure. The one time I ever heard Ornette Coleman on the radio, I thought, cool, Ornette Coleman. When the DJ played a second song I called the station in a panic, “Did Ornette Coleman DIE?!?” No, he hadn’t died, I was simply unable to imagine another motivation for a DJ to play TWO TUNES IN A ROW BY HIM since DJs NEVER PLAY ORNETTE, but fortunately I was wrong: the DJ was just in an Ornette state of mind.

The tragic union ballad was a great song, I’d never heard it before, a waltz, with Woody’s patented stoic delivery belied by the urgency of his words and his guitar, and also by his dramatic rhythmic virtuosity, stretching out some phrases and rushing other depending on the dramatic effect he wanted. Loved for his lyrics and his persona, he’s a vastly under-rated musician.

As I mentioned last night, musically he’s a disciple of the Carter Family. He played a lot of their tunes, and he played in their style. And he shared with them a stoic approach that worked great for his political songs. Both he and the Carters sing with dispassionate timbre and dynamics and lack-of-melisma, but the urgency of their guitar playing conveys an underlying passion. They have deep emotions to stoically bear. (The tension between the stoic voice and the urgent guitar rhythm tension is something Carter Family disciple Gillian Welch doesn’t get; she also lacks their rhythmic variety and keeps it straight 4/4.)


A reader wrote to say that I was being a little too hard on Paul Simon by saying that he should be ashamed for trivializing the climactic line of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” with the tag line of his “Graceland” hit “You Can Call Me Al.” My correspondent said that the allusion was benign and lost on most people. The query sent me to Google, which found Simon’s lyric.

Some of the lines show wit, and there seems to be a deliberate obscurity, but the 3rd verse shows the protagonist to be going through an identity crisis as he’s touristing in an impoverished 3rd World nation. He experiences an epiphany while noticing the beauty of a building; this brings him joy and his sense of identity back.

If you don’t know Harburg’s Depression-era lyric, Simon’s chorus is just a happy goof. But I do know Harburg’s song, and it’s also about a crisis of identity, and Harburg’s protagonist has no epiphany and no restoration of confidence and no happy resolution, and the reason why is that Harburg’s protagonist is impoverished and has nowhere to turn, while Simon’s protagonist is a presumably well-off tourist lost in an impoverished place. While the identity crises of the solvent are no trivial things, and while Simon’s protagonist is probably just goofily echoing some old half-remembered song, to my ear the allusion makes it sound like the triumphant crowing of a well-off man who remembers he has attractive options. Unlike Harburg’s protagonist, who’s name really is Al, someone will call Simon’s protagonist Al, and that’s not even his name. A song in which a rich man celebrates his triumph over identity-lessness by appropriating a poor man’s cry of identity-lessness. Not the protagonist’s intention, probably not Simon’s intention, but that’s how I hear it. Am I being too hard on Simon? Probably. It’s complicated. The rich man’s crisis is real, and maybe his appropriation of the poor man’s song indicates a guilty conscience. The bounty of possibilities makes it interesting, but that doesn't mean I like it.


What makes some songwords good and others bad? It’s an endless question. More about it later.

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