By Robin Wheeler
I shook hands with the lumberjack and we went our opposite ways. I never did get a real close look at him in the clouds; and when he walked away, his head and shoulders just sort of swum away in the fog of the morning. I had made another friend I couldn’t see. And I walked along thinking, Well, now, I don’t know if I’ll ever see that man again or not, but I’ll see a lot of men a lot of places and I’ll wonder if that could be him. “The House on the Hill” from “Bound for Glory”
While strangers might not have been so friendly (or interesting) in the hotel bar on Friday night, my decision to do some time in there was a good one in the long run. The emotional prophylactic of that sterile environment prepped me for the heart-bursting level of emotion that was Saturday.
Saturday morning, none of the issues that plagued my travel attempts to Lincoln Square on Friday night reappeared. Pretty sure the universe really wanted me to stay put that night. Arrived at the Old Town School of Folk with plenty of time to stake out a good spot for Billy Bragg’s workshop: “Why Write a Song?: Protest Music in the Digital Age.” Not that there was a bad spot; the audience was kept at around 100 people, hosted in an acoustically-perfect room, going 90 minutes instead of the allotted 60.
All that for $35. And I never would have known about it had I not called the box office, begging for concert tickets two weeks ago. Sometimes it pays to be a pest.
The workshop was loose, despite being hosted by an entertainment writer from the Chicago Tribune I’m pretty sure I saw at the Tulsa symposium. Covering the digital aspects, Bragg talked about how kids playing music now have so many outlets to get their work heard. Instead of being judged by the number of songs written, they’ll be judged by how engaged they are.
“No one ever wrote a Tweet that made anyone cry,” said Bragg, who’s a pretty prolific Tweeter. He later said that a Tweet or Facebook status update can plant a lyrical seed. He’d made a Facebook post the day before that included the line, “tax avoiders are motivated by greed, while those on benefits are in need. I know which side I’m on: Help the needy, not the greedy,” and said he’d had the last sentence stuck in his head since, so it must be something.
He discussed how he discovered English folk music as a kid because of Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Why no, that wasn’t the original song. Bragg picked it up from English artist Martin Carthy, who recorded it in 1965. The song’s been traced to the late medieval period.
Suddenly, discovering Woody Guthrie via the “Mermaid Avenue” albums doesn’t seem so bad. As long as modern artists keep the roots alive, they’ll always be discovered.
Bragg considers himself a soul singer. In his head he sounds like Smokey Robinson. His politics came from American soul music of the 1960s and ’70s “via osmosis,” he said. Listen to “The Tracks of My Tears” and it will lead directly to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”.
Everything Bragg learned came from soul records and the Boy Scouts, which he illustrated by performing a British scout campfire song followed by “Tracks of My Tears.” He doesn’t sound like Smokey, but he’s just as soulful and heartfelt.
With songwriting, Bragg aims for a different perspective. When asked for a song marking the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking, Bragg opted to write from the perspective of the iceberg.
And we all laughed at him. But the joke’s on us, because it’s a legit song:
He discussed the relaxed nature of writing melodies to Guthrie’s lyrics for “Mermaid Avenue.” With incredible lyrics in hand the melodies came organically. For Bragg it’s “easy to move a tune around,” which he demonstrated by playing bits of “People Get Ready,” “Tupelo Honey,” “The Girl From the North Country,” and “Let’s Get it On” as one song with the same melody. “Tunes are malleable.”
Nora Guthrie was adamant that the melodies not recall her father’s original works. She wanted to challenge the preconceived notions of her father. Bragg and Wilco took an approach similar to what Bob Dylan and The Band did with The Basement Tapes: old-timey songs with the essence of all the music that was made in the fifty years between lyrics and melodies. Dragging Woody into the 21st century.
For the doubters who didn’t want Woody dragged into the 21st century, Bragg cites the notebook containing “My Flying Saucer” (one of my favorite “Mermaid Avenue” tracks). It was the only notebook that included Guthrie’s notes on tempo. For this song, it was “Super Sonic Boogie.”
In the weeks leading to the possibility of maybe seeing Bragg do his Guthrie collaborations in concert, I hoped this might be on the set list, although I didn’t expect it.
I really didn’t expect to get it on the fly, unrehearsed, and played just because Bragg was moved to do so.
My notes from the section read as such: “My Flying Saucer – can’t really process.”
A week of processing later, all I can say is I was lucky enough to see an artist I admire performing a song I love with no regard to perfection. Performed because it fit the moment, not because it was polished and ready. Bragg is, indeed, a soul singer. There was nothing but soul in that rough-start take of “My Flying Saucer.” That’s all it needed. And that’s perfect. A perfect moment.
Later, he topped himself when a participant asked him about the late Jay Bennett’s contributions to the “Mermaid Avenue” project: “‘Mermaid Avenue’ stands as Jay’s best work. he could play anything. His presence is what made the sessions sound so mercurial. And then he played “Another Man Done Gone” for Bennett:
“Being able to hear a song that makes you cry is a wonderful thing,” Bragg said earlier in the session. Between this, and playing “Tank Park Salute” for his deceased parents, he gutted the audience.
While the music has the power to leave a room of one hundred people collectively crumbled on a warm Saturday afternoon in June, it doesn’t have the power to change the world, says Bragg. “Changing the world is a difficult process. It’s not as easy as it looks in ‘The Avengers.’” Personal responsibility will change the world and music can get us there. He talked of attending the Rock Against Racism show and for the first time knowing that he wasn’t alone in disagreeing with the racist vitriol he heard in his daily life. Knowing he wasn’t alone gave him the courage to stand up for his beliefs. The music didn’t do that, but it brought together the like-minded kids who, as a collective, had the power to go into the world and make change.
In the end, Bragg returned to the digital age, noting that while the media available to the newest generation of malcontents helps, the fact that this is the first generation “to articulate the ideas of organized compassion without being tainted by totalitarianism” is the most important aspect in making current pushes for change successful. Stalinism’s dead. Old ideas of socialism are changing; Bragg prefers the phrase “organized compassion” to the politically-loaded “socialism.”
“You don’t need the Marxists to tell us how to do a revolution!”
People filed out quickly, with only a few of us loitering to perhaps talk to Mr. Bragg. He didn’t indulge with the usual meet-and-greet. Instead, while he signed CDs, he asked what brought each person to the workshop. Real conversations. It made for a long wait, but so worthwhile, listening to him talk just as excitedly as his fans.
Emma, the woman who sat beside me during the workshop, mentioned that her iPhone had died and she didn’t have her camera. No biggie, I said, offering to take her photo with Bragg and email them to her. It’s just about the easiest thing in the world to do, right? She offered to do the same for me, since I was flying solo.
When my turn came, Bragg threw an arm around me like an old friend. I’m sure I went slack-jawed with both shock and joy. What music legend does this? One that practices the populism he preaches. When he asked why I came, I told him a bit about my project, and how it’s led me from St. Louis to Guthrie tributes around the country.
“Oh wow! I’m going to see you in Okemah in a few weeks for Woody’s birthday, then?”
Yes indeed! (My press application was approved today.)
While we talked about his need to return to St. Louis, the beautiful words he had for Jay Bennett, and how glad I am to have discovered him via Woody, Wilco, and Kirsty MacColl, I didn’t notice that Emma was circling with my phone, documenting our entire conversation in photos:
No, I don’t know why I’m flopping my hand or braying like a Missouri mule. Nor do I care. That’s where I was, talking to Billy Bragg. I felt like I was standing still and expressionless, making my concerted effort to not be “too much.” I’ve always been too much – too loud, too big, too expressive, too excited, too passionate, too emotional. So be it. I’m too much, but not so much that Bragg called security. He sent me away with a hug and a reminder to find him in Okemah on July 12.
Considering my media application was processed and approved in less than 12 hours, I’m assuming I haven’t been blacklisted.
Next: Chicago time with some not-so-strangers, followed by more strangers, and more Billy.