'Jolly Banker' lives on with Wilco

Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Seventy years ago, as the economy was finally crawling out of the Great Depression, banks in this country were just about as unpopular as they are today.

Singer Woody Guthrie tried to tap into a little bit of that discontent.

WOODY GUTHRIE: I'm a jolly banker, or the banker's lament. You can call it either one you want to.

Fast forward to the present day and what Guthrie said back then rings just as true.

GUTHRIE (singing): When dust storms are sailin',
The crops they are failin',
I'm a jolly banker,
Jolly banker am I.

Woody Guthrie's body of work, about the troubles of people living through hard times, inspired a lot of artists -- most recently the band Wilco. They're out with a new cover of "Jolly Banker" tomorrow. And I sat down the other day with frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Ryssdal: What prompted you to pull this song out of the archives and do it? Was it the obvious thing? The news of the day?

JEFF TWEEDY: It was Nora, his daughter, Nora Guthrie, who runs the archives. A couple of months ago when things really started to get hairy financially and economically for the country. That song had begun to get a little bit of attention. And she felt like somebody was going to cover it. And she called us because she wanted it to be us.

GUTHRIE (singing): When money you're needing,
And mouths you are feeding,
I'm a jolly banker,
Jolly banker am I.

Ryssdal: It is fundamentally a protest song.

TWEEDY: Yeah, I think it's geared towards increasing an awareness of what sometimes people miss when they're being preyed upon. Sometimes people don't seem to be able to get that because they're blinded by their desire to have the new car or whatever.

GUTHRIE (singing): Just bring me back two,
For the one I lend you,
Singing I'm a jolly banker,
Jolly banker am I.

Ryssdal: Are you hearing any of that same social commentary in the music that's out there today, the stuff you listen to, or the stuff you guys do?

TWEEDY: I don't, I don't think so. I don't hear anything as direct as the type of stuff that Woody did. I don't know, it's a very different time. There's an aimless quality to a lot of protests that I hear these days. Maybe history provides a sense of black and white, but it doesn't seem to be as easily defined these days.

Ryssdal: On that topic of social commentary, though, I mean you guys have a concert DVD coming out. It's called "Ashes of American Flags." What's the point there?

TWEEDY: Traveling around the country, I think one of the things that occurred to us as a way to make a concert film have a little bit more weight than just being a concert film, we came up with the idea of documenting some of our favorite venues and some of the places that we get to see by traveling around America that feel like the best parts of America. At least the best parts of what we thought of as America when we were growing up. There's places like Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla.; Reiman Auditorium in Nashville; Tipitina's in New Orleans. And just very unique places, places that have a real regional flavor to them.

Ryssdal: That open road part is exactly what Woody Guthrie did. He spent miles and miles and years and years on the roads of this country. What would he think today if he went out there and did what he did 40, 50, 60 years ago? What kinds of songs would he write?

TWEEDY: Going through the archives, one of the things that struck me is that Woody wrote about everything. And so, answering a question like that is almost impossible because he's very famous for writing about the Dust Bowl ballads and kind of documenting the struggles of that group of people. But to answer your question -- What would Woody write about now? -- everything. I'm sure that some of the stuff we were just talking about would strike him. The fact that everywhere he went looked a little bit more alike than it did when he was traveling around the country. I notice that even from the 20 years that I've been on the road. There are places that used to feel like you were in a unique place in the world and in a place that was different from the last place you were. And it doesn't feel as much like that these days.

Ryssdal: Jeff Tweedy, from the rock band Wilco. Jeff, thanks a lot.

TWEEDY: Thank you.

Ryssdal: The proceeds from Wilco's version of "Jolly Banker" go to the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...