Billy Bragg & Wilco, 'Mermaid Avenue'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Billy Bragg & Wilco
And it takes a night and a girl and a book of this
kind a long, long time to find its way back.
— Woody Guthrie, "Walt Whitman's Niece''
When we write stories about Woody Guthrie — the folk
singer whose guitar had scrawled on it, "This Machine
Kills Fascists'' — we inevitably get a handful of letters
from bunched-up patriots who remind us that Woody was a
"flaming Communist,'' damn us for our "poisonous
propaganda'' and insult that other threatening commie: Jane
Fonda. Such is the sorry state of Woody's legacy in his
ungrateful home state nearly 20 years after his death.
Leave it to a British folk singer — one who votes Labour,
of course — to help right the memory of the man who wrote
"This Land Is Your Land,'' "Union Maid,'' "Dust Storm
Disaster'' and, ironically, "I Ain't Got No Home.''
Guthrie's daughter, Nora, sought out Billy Bragg — a humble,
strong performer with political ideas nearly parallel to
the vocal and union-backing Guthrie — for her father's first
posthumous collaboration. The result undoubtedly will help
to give Guthrie long-overdue recognition on his native
soil, but more than that: this album, "Mermaid Avenue,''
does more to establish Woody in the pantheon of great
American champions than even "Library of Congress
Recordings,'' the ultimate collection of his output.
Guthrie was a prolific composer, but he usually failed
to write down the music or chords to his songs. Thus, when
he died in 1967, the tunes to thousands of unrecorded songs
died with him. The remaining reams of lyrics comprise
today's Woody Guthrie Archives, run by Nora in New York
City. At Nora's request, Bragg sifted through these
orphaned songs and — with the help of Jeff Tweedy and his
pioneering American roots band Wilco — wrote new music for
The album they recorded is a glowing testament to the
enduring power of Guthrie's imagination and conviction. By
turns raucous and witty, touching and insightful, these
songs — some of them a half century old — summon a musical
and social vitality the mainstream hasn't known since the
'60s. (And those "revolutions'' in the '60s were a direct
result of the ideas first publicly circulated by folk
singers like Guthrie.) Anyone remember when popular music
educated without preaching and entertained without
pandering? That music lives — and loves living — on "Mermaid
It's the collaboration with Bragg and Wilco, though,
that's essential to this vitality. Had the Archives simply
come across some lost recordings of Woody himself, the
inevitably tinny mid-century tapes and archaic production
quality would automatically date and distance the
sentiments. The same result would have come if this project
had been led by a Guthrie obsessive; the tunnel vision
would be exclusive — a very un-Woody quality. Even in the
electronic age, the oral traditions (the very basis of folk
music) transmit our culture, and it's the maintenance of
art throughout new generations that verifies the art's
worth as well as shaping the whole society. Bragg came to
Guthrie second-hand — through Dylan and the Byrds and Ry
Cooder — and it's perhaps because of his own distance from
Woody's material that he so easily embraces it, refreshes
it and tunes it up for a few more years of declaration in
the marketplace of ideas.
Bragg and Wilco have crafted an album that reveres
Woody's lean, direct lyrics while at the same time reveling
in the breadth of his character. Woody's oft-forgotten
playful side is brought to life in Tweedy's bouncy ramble
through the children's song "Hoodoo Voodoo,'' and while
the words to "Ingrid Bergman'' may seem on paper to be a
tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the actress, but Bragg's
breathtaking, simple delivery reveals more oft-forgotten
human qualities of Woody's: desire, romance, even lust. The
politics are here, too — still relevant in songs like
"Christ for President'' and the Frost-y (as in Robert)
"The Unwelcome Guest'' — but "Mermaid Avenue''
concentrates on love ("She Came Along to Me''), longing
("California Stars'') and beer-drinking sing-alongs
("Walt Whitman's Niece''). It's a fitting approach that
may aid us in the realization that Woody was a man — not
just an easy, dehumanizing label.
Funny, though, that it took a socialist Brit to bring
Woody back home. Even when Bragg — in his fairly thick,
English brogue — interjects spoken bridges into these
easy-going new tunes, the color never drains from the red
dirt on this album. No Oklahoman could listen to this
record and not conjure those heartfelt, enigmatic images of
this territory — the dust, the wheat, the sense of home and
hope, the pervading far-off look in every pair of eyes.
And that's the point. The fact that Woody's songs still
find life in the mouths of singers from every culture and
continent is proof of his lasting legacy — a legacy that
will outlive his detractors by centuries. Dust to dust.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.