I’ll come when you call me

Whoever clicked on the link to the Klezmatics in the previous post and listened to the first song of their Grammy-awarded CD Wonder Wheel, experienced a strange fusion of several layers of time. The lyrics on the CD were written by the legendary traveling songwriter and folk musician of the '40s Woody Guthrie, but their melodies date from sixty or – indirectly – thirty years later. In fact, around the turn of the century a number of renowned American pop musicians attempted to “complete” the lyrics of Guthrie that survived without music. Among them there was, upon the request of Guthrie’s daughter, the Klezmatics as well. They, however, did not apply here their usual modern klezmer style, but had recourse to those simple, melodic, “bright” ballads of the '60s and '70s written by Guthrie’s belated disciples like Bob Dylan or Donovan. These are the melodies of our childhood, and it is a curious feeling to hear them again. And one more, final layer of time is that this CD of 2006 – also arranging several Biblical texts like Take off your shoes, the spot you’re standing is holy ground; Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away – says, although in a different way, the same as sixteen years earlier the Hassidic song on the CD Rhythm and Jews.

Woody Guthrie in 1943
Guthrie wrote in 1949 this song that starts as a simple counting rhyme: the first verse beginning with “one” is augmented at every repetition with one more verse beginning with two, three, four etc., up to ten. And also the question-and-reply introducing the counting verses comes from a children’s play in which the “mother” asks her “child” whether she will come home when she will call her. The “child” answers yes, and then the “mother” tells her at what time she will call her. We only write here the last strophe of the song that contains all the ten verses of the counting rhyme.

Woody Guthrie-Klezmatics (1949/2006): Come When I Call You (4'25")

Oh, will you come when I call you?
I’ll come when you call me.
I’ll call you at half-past ten.
Ten for the atom bomb loose again.
Nine for the crippled and blind.
Eight for my eight billion graves.
Seven for the continents blowed up.
Six for the cities all wrecked.
Five’s for the warplanes that fly.
Four’s for the guns of this war.
Three’s for these warships at sea.
Two’s for the love of me and you.
One’s for the pretty little baby
that’s born, born, born and gone away.

The “pretty little baby” can be eventually Guthrie’s youngest child who not much earlier died in a fire. But as with the verses progressing the lyrics becomes increasingly apocalyptic, so the image of the lost child becomes also increasingly metaphoric – and the introductory question-and-answer increasingly eschatologic. It is already not the mother who asks her child whether she will come, but the child her mother, the abandoned man God: and it is also significant that not at an exact hour like in the original play, but always late, half an hour after the horror caused by himself. The title of the poem is a single cry for help: Come when I call you. Maran atha. But after every new horror we hear again and again the phrase which again and again rises above the tragedy: I’ll come when you call me.

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