04 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: The Pause of Mr. Claus

The American (Political) Folk Factor

I hated summer camp. But remembering now, I was first introduced to a number of influences and cool stuff by people I met there. Amongst these was Monty Python, Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, Don McClean, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Arlo Guthrie. The only Arlo Guthrie song I might have heard up until then would have been "City of New Orleans" which received loads of airplay, but here I listened avidly to his long and rambling monologues which accompanied songs that were almost incidental, particularly Alice's Restaurant and one of several versions of the Pickle Song. They were very funny.

I first came across The Pause of Mr. Claus at Jocelyn Fowler's house. Jocelyn was a classmate in high-school in the gifted program and a fellow member of the Scott's Hi-Q team. Scott's Hi-Q was a high school level version of the College Bowl / University Challenge format, played by schools in the region of the Scott Paper plant, which sponsored the competition. It was an acceptable outlet for my trivia and geek skills.

I'd cast Jocelyn in a couple of risqué roles in some of my abortive attempts to become the Eisenstein of Springfield by filming plays. It is a measure of my sub-Aspergian disconnect that I didn't register that this might be either offensive or suggestive, and she took it with good humor, perhaps expecting that none of them would come off anyway. Truth was I was sexually blinkered by the unrequited crush on the girl that went away and blighted my adolescence, and so it didn't occur to me that my motives toward anyone else would come into question, although, given that that particular passion play was entirely in my head.... I pretty much lacked any empathy that would grant me those kind of social skills. Hence, I expect now, that Jocelyn is on the long list of women I have inadvertently creeped out. (Sorry.)

Anyway, it was probably after a Scott's Hi-Q practice, which did the rounds of players homes, that I spotted the album Arlo on the shelf amongst the LP's. I probably needled them into playing it whilst we were waiting for parental transport to arrive. I wanted some of my friends who hadn't heard Arlo's subversive humor to get a taste or I wanted to look cool. The Pause of Mr. Claus came on and became an instant favorite. If you only have his greatest hits album, it's an essential track that is missing from that collection, so get Arlo as well.

Born at the tail end of the baby boom, with much older siblings, this was also music and stories that kept me connected to the Woodstock generation. Both my brothers went to Woodstock. They volunteered for the campaigns of the Kennedy's and protested Vietnam. My eldest brother was allegedly part of his college's Students for a Democratic Society, and he and other writers on the literary magazine formed a short lived performance poetry band unfortunately called The Stone. He and his friends met Allen Ginsberg and were invited for a weekend on his farm. My other brother hitch-hiked to Guatemala and back. So Arlo Guthrie's folktales of the modern counter culture meant much to me as a child of the Watergate generation. The Pause of Mr. Claus is mostly about the FBI and the authoritarian aspect of our government that it represents when it engages in tailing people for political rather than criminal reasons. (you really shouldn't but to just hear the song and skip the monologue go to 5:43)

Arlo's legendary father, Woody Guthrie, one of the greats of American song writing, died with many of his lyrics unrecorded. With the blessing of his estate, some of these were set to music by a project helmed by Britain's Billy Bragg with the American group Wilco. Here's a track that at a slight stretch could make a carol for our committed lefty carollers to add to their canon.

Christ For President by Woody Guthrie as sung by Billy Bragg and Wilco

Straying farther down the path, I can't help but feel like listening to my favorite Billy Bragg tune, Waiting for The Great Leap Forward. A song which starts out anecdotally and plays out anthemically, perhaps in its tale of optimism failed it asks us to keep our idealism. That to me should make it fit with the season of good will.

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