Glenn Pat­ter­son

Sym­bols and totems help us re­mem­ber and pay homage to our past, but through rein­ven­tion they can also lib­er­ate us from it

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY GLENN PAT­TER­SON

On music, mur­der and memo­ri­als

The first I knew that Paul Cum­mins’s Weep­ing Win­dow was com­ing to Belfast was when I got a phone call from the Ul­ster Mu­seum, from whose win­dow, or rather roof, the sculp­ture’s 5,800 pop­pies were to weep, ask­ing me if I would take part in one of their con­tex­tu­al­is­ing talks and sem­i­nars: “Signs of the Times: Sym­bols and their Mul­ti­ple Mean­ings”. If you are do­ing any­thing in Belfast with pop­pies, even if they are pre­sented as a work of art, it’s usu­ally a good idea to have con­tex­tu­al­is­ing talks and sem­i­nars. A cou­ple of hours af­ter that call, I was wash­ing my hands in the bath­room at home when I no­ticed a lit­tle enamel badge on the sink, next to the tap. The badge is nor­mally on the breast pocket of my 16-year-old daugh­ter’s cor­duroy jacket. It is in the shape of an acous­tic gui­tar around the body of which are writ­ten the words “this ma­chine kills fas­cists” and is mod­elled on a gui­tar that be­longed to the Amer­i­can folk singer and song­writer Woody Guthrie, who died 50 years ago last au­tumn. At other times in his life, Guthrie had the phrase printed and stuck on to his gui­tar, but in its most fa­mous it­er­a­tion it is painted, free­hand, in a mix of up­per and lower case let­ters (up­per case A in ma­chine, lower case a in fas­cists), as it is, or as it is re­pro­duced, on my daugh­ter’s badge. There is to my knowl­edge only one photograph of that par­tic­u­lar gui­tar. Woody stares straight down the cam­era, hair stand­ing up from his fore­head, a faint jet of cig­a­rette smoke blur­ring his lips, and a har­mon­ica on a wire frame round his neck. The gui­tar is slung low across the front of his body, head­stock point­ing up at a 45-de­gree an­gle. The ve­neer on the gui­tar is cracked, the strings tied to the bridge rather than pegged. If you had asked me un­til re­cently where it was taken, I would have said nowhere in par­tic­u­lar – the back­ground is bleached out. Guthrie is a man alone. He is Hobo Woody, the Oklahoma na­tive who rode the rails in the US in the De­pres­sion years of the 1930s in search of work, ex­pe­ri­ences that he later drew on (I was go­ing to change that to “wrote on”, but he drew lit­tle pictures too) in the memoir Bound for Glory. In the orig­i­nal photograph, which I only saw a cou­ple of months ago, there are peo­ple stand­ing be­hind him chat­ting, bot­tles of beer in hand. I’m guess­ing, from the decor and the bar ta­ble in the right of

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