Tag: woody guthrie

MONSTERS OF POETRY: Woody Guthrie!

musicpoetry

One By One

One by one the teardrops fall as I write you
One by one my words come falling on the page
One by one my dreams are fading in the twilight
One by one my schemes are fading fast away

One by one the flowers fading in my garden
One by one the leaves are falling from the trees
One by one my hopes are vanished in the clouds clear
One by one like snowflakes melting in the breeze

One by one my hair is turning gray
One by one my dreams are fading fast away
One by one I read your letters over
One by one I lay them all away

One by one the days are slipping up behind you
One by one the sweetest days of life go by
One by one the moments stealing out behind you
One by one she’ll come and find not you or I

One by one I hear the soft words that you whispered
One by one I feel your kisses soft and sweet
One by one I hope you’ll say the words to marry
One by one to one by one forever be

– – –

The thing most people don’t understand about Woody Guthrie is that he was a truly incredible and advanced wordsmith, an American poet of the highest order. Woody Guthrie is known more as a “songwriter,” which is like a poet, but somehow cruder, more base, less academic. Really, though, a song is nothing more than a poem you can dance to. Still others know Woody as a populist, an advocate for justice and “the little guy.” For some he’s simply a bum from Oklahoma.

It’s become one of my quests in life to help Mr. Guthrie’s image and raise him up to where he belongs, a place occupied already by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and the like. The Pantheon of American Poets. I know that he’d rather be kicking around in Frost’s back alley playing harmonica, but he deserves to be remembered justly.

An example of his poetic prowess: “One By One.” An example of why he’s not remembered as a great poet: nobody ever heard or read “One By One” besides maybe his family, until the singer Billy Bragg, with the help of Wilco, recovered some of his unpublished work and put it to music on the incredible Mermaid Avenue records. I can tell you now, that if people had read this poem while he lived – and if he hadn’t died so young – he would be read in homes and schoolhouses the country over. As it is, it’s hard to find any of his work in print (despite the best efforts of Bragg & Co.), minus his autobiography and the new book of his artwork.

Immediately it’s easy to see that Woody had a flair for repetition. He understood and loved the sounds of words, and he knew a good phrase when he heard it. In “One By One” the anaphora is, naturally, “One by one…” which gives the poem real heft, but also slows it down in time. The sense of the phrase is slow, but reading it over and over also makes the poem move slower, in a strict, quiet rhythm. The poem is indeed one of silence. Teardrops fall, hair turns gray, leaves fall, flowers die, words are written down, not spoken. The sweet days of life – a summery metaphor – slip into the silence of autumn. The only real sounds are whispered words, in the last stanza. The poet here is not grief-stricken, but he is melancholy and verging on hearbreak. He sees life moving by as he waits and waits for his love to answer his marriage proposal. A less deft hand would have turned this subject into the stuff of melodrama, but here Guthrie handles it with delicacy, and he preserves each moment beautifully.

Wilco turned these words into a classic song, and more than a couple people have remarked that it’s one of the finest songs ever written. The group shows a real understanding of the words and turns it into a somber tune driven by piano, organ, and a steady, expecting, beat. Jeffy Tweedy’s voice is quiet and doused in reverb. I have to a agree, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and all-time favorite poems.

Wilco – One By OneĀ 

Bob Dylan

poetry

Tangled Up in Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through,
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue,”
Tangled up in blue.

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell.
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix.
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind,
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue.

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear.
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same,
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath,
She studied the lines on my face.
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,
Tangled up in blue.

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs,
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air.
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died.
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside.
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.

So now I’m goin’ back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

– – –

I was hard-pressed to find the best Dylan poem to introduce him as a Monster of Poetry. I ultimately decided on Tangled Up In Blue because, besides being one of his finest and most well-loved songs, it is, lyrically, the most successful melding of the two sides of Bob Dylan.

Bob’s biography is simple and fairly well known. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, MN, he grew up in Hibbing, leaving after high school for the Twin Cities to study and start playing his folk songs. He was antsy to leave the Midwest, as many often are, so he left for New York, where he played in the local folk clubs and met his hero, Woody Guthrie, as he lay dying in his hospital bed. He was discovered by Columbia Records. He made four folk records but his fifth, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home launched Dylan’s controversial career as an electified blues/rock’n’roll musician. In 1966 he crashed his motorcycle, nearly dying. When he started making music again, it was of a simpler sort: folk-country on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline; muddy blues with The Band on Planet Waves. It was as if his earlier career and rise to stardom had never happened, as if he were learning to play music all over again. Similarly his lyrics had changed, morphed into a more personal, confessional style. The height of this New Dylan was Blood On The Tracks which many say is his best album. Tangled is the leadoff track.

Many associate Dylan with a certain weirdness, one that’s hard to pinpoint. Part of Dylan’s poetic education came from the Surrealists and the Imagists; he was a disciple of the Frenchmen Baudelaire and Rimbaud – both very strange guys – as well as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. But he’s acknowledged repeatedly that his one true hero was Woody Guthrie, balladeer and rambler. Guthrie, though highly political, essentially was a storyteller. While the surrealism of Dylan tends to form the most lasting impression, a true study of his catalog reveals that he too is but a simple storyteller. Here in Tangled Up In Blue the story could not be simpler (or could it? I’ll get to that in a minute), and it’s as old as time itself: poor boy wants rich girl; rich parents don’t want poor boy; poor boy leaves forever. It’s written in vivid tones, filled with rich words and phrases: “if her hair was still red,” “great north woods,” “dark sad night,” “I just kept looking at the side of her face / in the spotlight so clear,” “glowed like burnin coal,” “she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe.” And there’s a bit of surreal imagery in there, lines on slaves, mathematicians, carpenter’s wives, 13th century Italian poetry, a topless bar (where he looks only at her face).

And of course there’s that gorgeously enigmatic line, “tangled up in blue.” Tangled up in blue…boy, it’s hard to really say what that means. The words “tangle” and “blue” each have good and bad connotations. In poetry “tangle” is often used to describe a woman’s curly hair, or a situation one is gladly involved in. But it also means a hopeless mess, and it evokes pain, like thorny rosebushes. “Blue” is a calm, comfortable color; sky blue; but it’s also “the blues.” The phrase’s connotation depends on what you think of the first verse; is he dreaming about the woman he’s lost forever, or the woman he’s lost but will soon find again? “Lord I’ve paid some dues gettin through;” does that mean he’s at the end of his trials or still in the midst? And then there’s “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue.” Either way, “tangled up in blue” is a striking, beautiful line, one of my favorites in all of literature/music.

And while the story seems Guthriesque, something about it doesn’t add up. Lindsey and I have debated this point a bit. The middle verses hang together pretty well, but the verse starting with “Montague Street” seems to be non sequitur. The first verse implies two young people together; the second implies an older couple, with him rescuing her from a divorce. The last verse makes it seem like he’s still searching for her; yet he seems to have found her, topless, a few verses back. It might be that each verse is a snippet from a different story. I dunno. Here Dylan’s Guthrie and Surreal sides collide. What we get is a story, yes, one full of pain and joy and evocative, glowing language, burning like coals, as he says. Yet the story is subtly surreal and decidedly nonlinear; and thus, decidedly Dylan.