Friday, February 16, 2007

Woody on diversity

I've been getting into older American music lately: folk, old time, mountain music etc. I've also been getting into americana and alt-country. These interests led me to this album:

For those who don't know, Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter by his second wife, discovered thousands of unpublished Woody lyrics that he never got around to putting to music. She asked Englishman Billy Bragg to pick some of these lyrics and make 'em into music (I heard somewhere that Bob Dylan was initially asked, but turned Nora down for some reason--but don't take my word for that). Billy, in turn, got Chicago rockers Wilco in on the deal. Thus, Mermaid Avenue was born.

And what we were given here is some amazing music. The songwriting (what I mean is the instrumentals and vocals) is beautiful and deep and yet simple enough to remind you of centuries of music that came before it. The lyrics--well I've known about Woody for a little while now, but I guess I never paid extra close attention to what he was saying, because the lyrics on this album are often spectacular. Which brings me to the point of this post.

There is one particular lyric on this album that really grabs me: track six.
She Came Along to Me

Ten hundred books could I write you about her
Because I felt if I could know her

I would know all women
And they've not been any too well known

For brains and planning and organized thinking
But I'm sure the women are equal
And they may be ahead of the men

Yet I wouldn't spread such a rumor around
Because one organizes the other
And some times the most lost and wasted
Attract the most balanced and sane
And the wild and the reckless take up
With the clocked and the timed
And the mixture is all of us
And we're still mixing

But never, never, never
Never could have it been done
If the women hadn't entered into the deal
Like she came along to me

And all creeds and kinds and colors
Of us are blending
Till I suppose ten million years from now
We'll all be just the alike
Same color, same size, working together
And maybe we'll have all the fascists
Out of the way by then
Maybe so.

I'm not sure when this was written, but the window would be early 40s to mid-60s; if I had to guess from the content, I'd say some time in the 40s. Anyway, there's a lot of stuff going on in this song. Woody takes the individual experience and extrapolates it to the collective; he's talkin civil rights and feminism; he's a bit postmodernist; and, perhaps most striking, is this song's discourse on diversity.

Woody sez that diversity is the key to progress: the "wild and reckless" get with the "clocked and timed," the "lost and wasted" with the "balanced and sane." When different folks get together, they not only moderate, but they essentially change one another. The acceptance of diversity, here, is the engine of life: for if life were ruled by some monolith and nothing else, then we'd be missing out on a lot of variety, a lot of passion, a lot of things that makes living living--no matter your perspective.

Yet, the last stanza is difficult to put a finger on. Woody sez that "we'll all be just the alike" after years of mixing. Gone will be the kinds, creeds, and colors. We'll be one people. And where does that leave us? Perhaps we'll be rid of the fascists because we'll all inherently be fascists. We'll be one master race, one culture, all mixed up nicely in a brave new world of mass media, where we feel, through osmosis, hate for anyone trying to do anything that is nonstandard. Don't even mention beings from another planet. That would probably be the worst fear of all. Is that what Woody means?

Nah, I don't think so. Ten million years is such a long time. We probably won't even be around then. Woody knows this. It's the ideal; it's Platonic I suppose. As with Plato's Forms, the idea of some kind of beautiful perfection that is just out of our reach is motivation for finding the good*. Unlike Plato (perhaps--depending on how you interpret him), however, I think Woody recognizes his over-the-top idealism for what it is. When he talks about the unfathomable sum of 10 million years, he acknowledges the impossibility of his stated perfect mix of people. Even so, he can't say with any confidence that fascism will be dead. He "supposes" everything in the last stanza. It's no mistake that the whole song ends with "maybe so." What he presents is a land of pure conjecture. And what that leaves the listener with is only a focus on the process--one that has value in and of itself. It's a beautiful echo of ancient, timeless philosophy, but with lots of twists.

And it all comes back to the central theme of the song: the importance of one-on-one interaction. If we aren't willing to challenge ourselves by opening up to a different experience or by thinking deeply about something unfamiliar, then what, really, are we living for?

Anyway, I originally intended this post to be about hate in America, particularly how "in-group thinking" contributes to unbelievable divisions in this country and how it seems an inevitably perpetual problem. Maybe if I remember what the hell I intended to say, I'll continue this next time I have computer access. Happy weekend.

*Good is generally a bullshit term, in my opinion. However, sometimes the context requires it, and sometimes it is rhetorically useful. When I use it I'll try to stipulate exactly what I mean. In this case I mean Platonic beauty.

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