Episode 34. “Union Sundown.” Infidels. Bunker. Week 3 of Woody Guthrie Month. October 19, 2017.
Definitely wouldn’t be Daniel’s choice for the first song off 1983’s Infidels but “Union Sundown” has Woody Guthrie connections (which get less obvious as the years go on).
As for the song, it’s maddening to try to date this. There are demos in winter of 1983, in April of the same year (sandwiched between the exceptional “Foot of Pride” and “I & I”) and some overdubs from May. Guess what song “Union Sundown” displaced from Infidels: yep, “Blind Willie McTell.” In contrast to “I Shall Be Free” from last week, from a day that saw Dylan accept his fate in studio and crank out 8 of the 13 tracks on Freewheelin’, the studio is now Dylan’s greatest enemy and the truly grand ideas and monumental songs are passed over for technical fads and lyrical waffling. “Union Sundown” is no different. It’s a minor song that Dylan was wrong about.
Sundown on the Union (8:00)
An aspect of Woody Guthrie that continues to be discussed today is his politics. Dylan has shied away from them over the past decade but gave it shot here in the early 1980s. A lot of what he’s talking about with globalization and the increasingly changing world still rings true today, though the places and products have changed.
There’s a big push on to make a big global country—one big country—where you can get all the materials from one place and assemble them someplace else and sell ’em in another place … Ninety per cent of the iron for the Second World War came out of those [Minnesota] mines, up where I’m from. [Yet] eventually they said, ‘Listen, this is costing too much money to get this out. We must be able to get it someplace else. (Bob Dylan, 1983)
Kelly dives into just what is globalization and just what is Bob getting at! If you try to remember back to the 1980s: America and Britain are now run by right-wing governments that preach free-market fundamentalism (“trickle down” anyone?) with a dash of austerity, a sprinkle of union-busting, and hypocritical lethal dose of skyrocketing defense spending (from $711.9 billion in 1980 to 2.19 trillion).
They talk about how so many of those nightmare ideas are being rebranded and sold today, antiglobalization and protectionism (and how these principles are flavored today with Trumpism, racism, nationalism). In a world that’s impossible to imagine not being interconnected, the idea of cutting off trade is not only inconceivable but also immoral. Humans have been trading and interconnected for millennia and calls for it to be shut down are cynical.
They use songs like Dylan’s “North Country Blues” and Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre,” “Farmer-Labor Train,” “I Guess I Planted,” “Jolly Banker” and “Worried Man Blues,” among others, to frame this conversation.
While Dylan pens a few songs expressing extreme skepticism of political progress, his work continues to call for justice. “Union Sundown” has clear postmodern features as it expresses skepticism over the viability of a workers’ movement that has become a “big business,” but it also cries foul about unregulated capitalism which is “above the law” and the exploitation of third world labor. (Porter, Bob Dylan and Philosophy)
The song itself (20:00)
But does any and all that context help the song? Not really. It’s bland rockism that sounds and feels dated. A minor song. For Daniel, perhaps unfairly, its very existence is a crime. At least he knows he’s an alternate Infidels apologist and can now seek help and counseling for coming to terms with just how disappointing real life can be. Thoughts and prayers, folks!
Per usual, Michael Grey offers an outstanding starting point:
Dylan’s early work includes a Guthrie Period, of course, and while one of the two self-composed songs on his first album is the direct address ‘Song to Woody’, the other, ‘Talkin’ New York’ also quotes from him, transcribing and reiterating his morality (‘Now a very great man once said / Some people rob you with a fountain pen’, which comes from Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’): a morality that has remained crucial in Dylan’s work ever since. We meet it close to the surface again in the interestingly political 1980s song ‘Union Sundown’: a genuine protest song in the Guthrie tradition, and an honourable addition to it because it is observant about a reality that wasn’t there to be observed in the 1960s—a real and contemporary ‘state of the union’ survey, and with a title that carries among its many meanings one that echoes a far earlier Dylan sleevenote poem in its recognition that the Guthrie era of noble, simple pro-union sentiment is no longer an available option
But it brings us back to talking about “the union,” basic economic principles, the disconnect between money and people that is arguably the conflict that humanity will carry to its inevitable demise. This song is less interesting than talking about its contents. It’s just not a good song, but it’s an important topic.
Mixed Up Confusion
In addition to “Union Sundown,” we also recorded the last Mixed Up of Woody Guthrie Month looking at Woody Onward, artists beyond Dylan finding inspiration in Woody and Woody’s words.
Daniel, thanks to Mixed Up, listened to the entirety of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue as well as the new Iron Chic You Can’t Stay Here.
Kelly guessed #500, “You Changed My Life.” It was #388, “I Went to See the Gypsy.” EXCEPT it’s the final week of Woody Guthrie Month and we’re going out with a bang, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”