"To Washington" Source Charlie Poole Gets Renewed Focus

In light of the much-deserved praise that has greeted Loudon Wainwright III’s new “High Wide & Lonesome—The Charlie Poole Project”—and having just seen him perform it at a one-off show in New York—I want to remind everyone that John has his own connection to the legendary Poole via “To Washington.”

Eight years of peace and prosperity
Scandal in the White House
An election is what we need
From coast-to-coast to Washington

So began the song, from John’s 2003 album “Trouble No More.” It was about the disastrous 2000 election that brought George W. Bush to the White House.

So a new man in the White House
With a familiar name
Said he had some fresh ideas
But it's worse now since he came
From Texas to Washington

As I noted in “John Mellencamp: The Concert at Walter Reed,” the song was based on Woody Guthrie’s “Baltimore to Washington," which was about a roving, down-on-his-luck-gambler. But Guthrie had patterned the lyric and melody after another song called “Cannonball Blues,” a tune credited to country music’s legendary Carter Family that can be traced at least as far back as 1902; it had also been recorded by the 1920s string band Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers—this time as “White House Blues.”
“Everybody stole that song, so I m going to steal it, too,” John told the New York Times, having previously noted in “Trouble No More”’s promotional material that “the tradition of the song is for it to be stolen and made contemporary each time it’s done.”

John’s version ended with that “new man in the White House” sending out armed forces “to police the world from Baghdad to Washington.”

What is the thought process
To take a humans life
What would be the reason
To think that this is right
From heaven to Washington
From Jesus Christ to Washington

John’s fondness for older forms of pop music, of course, is central to his forthcoming album “No Better Than This,” which made use of vintage recording equipment and procedures in historic settings. The hugely influential Charlie Poole, meanwhile, lives on in Wainwright’s terrific two-disc tribute, which features both Poole classics and original songs inspired by him and stars Wainwright, family members including Rufus Wainwright and The Roches, and stellar acoustic instrumentalists including longtime accompanist Chaim Tannenbaum.

--jim bessman