Billy Bragg & Wilco: Walt Whitman's Niece
As a listener and blogger, I tend to favor a focus on history, production and musicality over text. From that perspective, today's song is easy to present: penned by Woody Guthrie fifty years before it was set to music and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco on their Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue collection, Walt Whitman's Niece is a fun rockabilly stomper that recounts a based-on-fact narrative of a night with a seaman friend and some girls. Period.
But as a teacher of English and Communications, trained in poetic parsing, it's hard not to notice the concrete power of the text here. These are heavily down-to-earth lyrics, with the first two verses constructed of structurally consistent couplets of event-oriented plot lines paired with self-aware lines protecting the anonymity of the people and places involved, ad infinitum, until we reach absurdity of not even being able to know which rug they lie on, which stairs they climbed to get there, which book of poems the unnamed seaman and narrator heard from the unnamed girls of the titular lyric.
If that were all he wrote, then the song would be an interesting exercise, nothing more. But perhaps not surprisingly for those who recognize the literate poetic genius of Guthrie himself, in that it reads a bit like a Whitman poem, especially at the end, the lyrical structure belies the crypticism of the words it contains. Here's verse three of three in its entirety, a testament to both the project and the poet it pays tribute to:
My seaman buddy and girl moved off
after a couple of pages and there I was,
All night long, laying and listening
and forgetting the poems.
And as well as I could recall
or my seaman buddy could recollect,
My girl had told us that she was a niece,
of Walt Whitman, but not which niece,
And it takes a night and a girl
and a book of this kind
A long long time to find its way back