Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me

by | Dec 27, 2005

I’m reading Bob Dyaln’s autobiography, Chronicles. I’m only 100 pages in, but so far it’s an amazing book.

One story that really jumped out at me was the fact that Dylan journeyed to Woodie Guthrie’s house in Coney Island (at Woodie’s request) in search of Guthrie’s unrecorded songs, some 30 plus years before Billy Bragg and Wilco would make these works into two masterful releases, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Danny Duncan Collum, writing in Sojourners, describes the Wilco/Bragg effort.

Mermaid Avenue adds up to something even greater than the sum of its parts. For one thing, it is a creation for these times. Guthrie wrote some of these lyrics in the postwar era, when the revolutionary dreams of the 1930s were going on ice. The hard-edged realistic hope of those songs seems appropriate to our own New World Order, and Bragg’s voice captures it well. As a rock group, Wilco represents a turn-of-the-century roots movement that is growing in reaction to the soullessness and placelessness of globalized culture. Their ragged beats and rough textures fly in the face of contemporary computer-perfect expectations, and their good humor and capacity for sincerity are an affront to the postmodern ethos of compulsive irony.

But there’s more to Mermaid Avenue than that. The album begins with a song called “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” which seems to evoke a sense of American populist tradition that reaches back past the 1930s, and past this century, into the age of steamboats and abolitionism. It’s a claim to a spiritual heritage. It says that there is an America other than the one of commerce and empire. It’s the land that was made for you and me. And even at this late date we can uncover it and call it our own.

Woodie’s wife was not home when Dylan arrived, and 14-year old Arlo could not locate the box of lyrics in the family’s basement. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.