After the relatively lush production quality of the last three singles, this 7” drags the aesthetic right back down into lo-fi drear territory. The first ten seconds of “Gezundheit” even sounds like it was recorded on damaged tape, whereas “Let The Wires Ring,” is a rambling, tinny, lo-fi epic with a long winding story about poverty and entertainment. I suppose this single sort of messes with your expectations; one assumes that the return to weird pastiche collage and tuneless narrative was deliberate, and for that reason, we shall embrace it…
Gezundheit… so here’s the lowdown: Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labor activist at the turn of the 20th century, immortalized in a famous poem by British poet, Alfred Hayes, who moved to the U.S. to live there. The poem’s first line reads: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Alive as you or me.” In 1936, the pianist Earl Robinson composed the poem as a song. Bob Dylan then appropriated those opening lines for his song, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” in 1968 and in 1991, Billy Bragg celebrates the spirit of Phil Ochs with, “I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night / Alive as you or me.” In 1995 Will Oldham joined the tradition and copied Bragg’s first verse almost verbatim but thereafter changed the song into something ironic and comic, in which Phil Ochs seems less interested in his spirit’s continued struggle against Power than telling Oldham’s narrator to piss off. Apparently Phil Ochs, along with Leonard Cohen, was one of Oldham’s major influences. Ochs’s style is apparent in this song (although at first I thought Oldham was channeling Dylan – he seems to replicate not only Dylan’s voice at twenty, but something of his slurred phrasing too, while a quickly strummed folk guitar provides accompaniment.) Oldham’s version has two parts. In the first the narrator dreams he sees Phil Ochs who tells him that he never died—this is in keeping with the original poem. But Ochs then mocks him, saying they have no bond. “But Phil, why do I feel this way?” he asks, only to be told by Phil “you’ve got an unhealthy mind.” A satirical comment on influence perhaps. The song completely stops. Oldham then closes the circle by tacking on a sample of a woman reading a poem by Sam Walter Foss to the accompaniment of humming organ. The poem is about a young boy who dreamed of a new God each year as his understanding of the universe continued to expand: “As wider skies broke on his view / God greatened in his growing mind / Each year, he dreamed his God anew / And left his older God behind.” Perhaps this is in tribute to Phil Ochs who was apparently harassed by the authorities during that period of US communist paranoia which Dylan mocks so hilariously in a number of his songs. Or, could it be that Oldham is singing about himself ‘discovering greater gods,’ in a ‘kill your heroes’ moment? The sample sounds like a 1950s style recording, a soft woman’s voice reciting the lines as if it was a bedtime story. But halfway through, weird groany monstrous backwards guitar tones and crackle obliterate her voice, while some weird female vocal bleeds into the mix, before the whole thing gets sucked into a black hole. Amen to that; booyah to Scotty McCreery.
Let The Wires Ring… is quite a long song, recorded on what sounds like 2 or 4 track equipment, just Oldham strumming his guitar, with tiny blips of static, and generally poor sound. The lyric is probably the key ingredient of the song—it’s presented as a dramatic monologue delivered by a man who might be the husband, partner or manager of the person he sings to. We are forced to figure out who he is from what he says to his listener, whom he refers to as “darling.” The ‘wires’ in the title probably refer to piano strings—late in the song there’s mention of a “black piano,” which “we don’t even own.” There’s a few scattered phrases that suggest his “darling” is a performer, whereas the singing narrator/manager seems concerned about money: “We have a good thing / Make those wires ring.” And in this verse he tells her, “Just keep playing, darling / Keep on them keys / The customers ain’t payin’ / For you to rest yourself at ease / And stop moaning those tunes.” He’s a tough manager though, because he seems quite critical, calling her ignorant, telling her she has no rhythm, no one can dance to her, and observing her “dripping make-up,” “sloppy clothes” and “faded beauty.” But they seem to be struggling to make ends meet, and he uses the metaphor of a boat, which I guess suggests something about staying afloat: “There’s no money in our run … / Here we’re sharing this boat / One hull which threatens to crack.” He then sidetracks into a high-pitched rant about “Johnny Ace,” a singer who “was drunk, was fucked, was not on stage” when he accidentally shot himself in the head in 1954. He advises her not to make the same “silly move” as “that hardly memorable fool.” All of these lines are delivered in one of Oldham’s most broken voices, full of cracks and tics, voice plunging into droll crevices and rising whoop-like on broken lines where he sounds angry or disturbed as he starts thrashing his guitar. Once more he reminds her, “It’s here at work / That money comes.” The whole thing sounds like 1918 back-country North Carolina, like something off Smithsonian Folkways. It’s not even easy to make out the lyrics let alone follow it. And always that dirgey, cheap guitar getting bashed, or strummed with its tinny mandolin-like gurgle. Some kind of period piece?
Both “Gezundheit” and “Let The Wires Ring” appear as they are here, on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2. There seem to exist no other versions or performances, which might signal that Oldham had ditched them for good. In fact this single was released on a German label called Hausmusik. I haven’t been able to uncover any of the back story behind this release. Next we jump to 1996 for the “Every Mother’s Son/No More Rides” single.
Let The Wires Ring was performed in Glasgow, on the 2006 tour with Harem Scarem
at the request, i believe, of Alex Nielson.
Oh, cool. Thanks. Pity it wasn’t included on Is It The Sea?