Braggin' rights: Who better to put tunes to a stack of Woody Guthrie lyrics than a Labour man?
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Last fall, British folk singer Billy Bragg was kicking
around Green Country chasing the ghost of Woody Guthrie.
He'll be back this week — and this time he's bringing his
Bragg will be performing a special kind of Guthrie
tribute. In fact, it's less a tribute than a collaboration
with the late Okemah-native and legendary American folk
singer. At the request of Guthrie's daughter Nora, Bragg
wrote music to several dozen Guthrie lyrics — verses whose
music was stored in Woody's head and died with him in 1967.
With the backing of premier American roots band Wilco, the
results of the collaboration were released a couple of
weeks ago on a CD named for the location of Guthrie's New
York City home, "Mermaid Avenue."
His solo show in Okemah this week — kicking off the first
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Arts Festival — brings full circle
his study of Woody's still-struggling legacy. We caught up
with Bragg again last week to talk about the finished
project, and he tore himself from a televised World Cup
game to talk about the album, his crash course in Oklahoma
history and the irony of the continuing struggle of the
country's greatest songwriter to find acceptance in his
Thomas Conner: Before you started working on this album,
how much of America had you seen?
Billy Bragg: I've seen more of America than most
Americans. I've traveled here two or three times a year
since 1984, and I've been through every state except six. I
don't like to fly, either, so I drive it. You see more that
way, you know? If you just fly over it, how do you know
what's different about it? If I hadn't been looking at a
map and driving, for instance, I wouldn't know that the
Texas panhandle is not really a panhandle at all. It's
Oklahoma that's got the real panhandle.
TC: And how much did you know about Woody before
embarking on this project?
BB: We've driven through Oklahoma before but never
stopped there. When we drove down from Pittsburg last fall,
I read Woody's biography on the way. Before that, I knew as
much as anybody, I guess. I knew he influenced Bob Dylan,
he died of a terrible disease and he wrote "This Land Is
Your Land." I'm used to hearing his music performed by other
artists. I first heard "Pretty Boy Floyd" done by the Byrds,
and I heard "Do Re Mi" done by Ry Cooder. This project is
sort of a continuation of that tradition.
TC: Tell me about some of the experiences you had
exploring Oklahoma last fall.
BB: Well, I'd never been to Tulsa before. When we
visited the Cain's Ballroom — that stuck with me. The whole
idea of Bob Wills and the Sex Pistols all wrapped up in one
place — it really speaks to something ...
TC: What does it speak to?
BB: The — what is it? — the melting pot of America. All
that melting stuff of humanity seems to do its mixing in
the center of America, in Oklahoma. The whole state tends
to stand out, whether it wants to or knows it or not.
Oklahoma doesn't fit easily into the categories of Midwest,
Southwest or the South. It's very much a crossroads.
TC: Indeed, much to the dismay of chambers of commerce
and tourist departments that try to find a marketable
identity for the state.
BB: But they've got it. Woody Guthrie is your Mickey
Mouse. Those chambers of commerce have resisted the man who
wrote "This Land Is Your Land." If the person who wrote the
actual national anthem came from Oklahoma, you'd call
yourselves home of the national anthem. Thirty or forty
years ago, you could have called yourselves the home of
TC: No signs like that in Okemah, eh?
BB: We went to Okemah and walked the streets — some still
sort of brick cobble streets — and walked to the ruin of the
Guthrie house, just getting the vibe for it. It's really
rolling hills around there, not flat as everyone pictures
it from images of the Dust Bowl. My preconceptions about
Oklahoma were about as correct as my preconceptions about
We went to Pampa (Texas), too, which is flat as a
pancake. Looking out my hotel room window on the third or
fourth floor, just before the sun came up, in the distance
I could catch the lights from Calgary or Edmondton ...
TC: What did you learn about Woody that really surprised
BB: I learned that if you think of Woody Guthrie as a
character in a world like the movie version of "The Grapes
of Wrath" you're only getting half the picture. He also
belongs as a background character walking onto subways in
Manhattan, in the background of a movie like "On the
TC: I understand you found a few folks around Okemah who
don't think much of their native son because of his
BB: Yeah, we found some people with
rather strong views about Okemah's favorite son. They're
dying off, though. It's very much a generational thing. If
this project leads to a reassessment of Woody's life and
career, the place it needs that most is in Oklahoma. One
day it may come to pass that people there begin to be
unashamed of him as they are.
TC: How did you approach the writing process — putting
music to words already written, and written by someone you
respect so much?
BB: The process was really very simple for me. When I
write songs, I slave over the lyrics, but the music just
flows. I suppose it's some sort of intuitive thing, and I
just sort of tune into it. I just sat down with these
lyrics and in some ways just felt the tunes. You sit down
and feel what you feel. If there's nothing, you turn a few
pages, and maybe the next one gets you somehow.
TC: Was it your idea to work with Wilco, or was that a
record company strategy?
BB: My idea. When Nora approached me, the deal I made
was that I chose the musicians. She was very concerned that
this not sound like a tribute record. Tributes are nice
ideas, but they're often focused on the personalities of
the people who record them. We wanted to focus on the
TC: So why Wilco?
BB: They sound like the ultimate Midwest Americana
red-dirt band. (Wilco leader) Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous
songwriter, too. He really understood what we were
TC: And why did it take a Brit to get such a firm grip
on Woody's ethos?
BB: Well, there are very few people out there performing
today who talk openly about unions. Maybe that's why they
needed me, a foreigner. There's really nothing we have in
common as artists. But even though the political situation
I went through in Britain in the 1980s was different from
what Woody was experiencing in the '30s, the conclusions we
came to are quite similar.
TC: Will you have another go at this kind of
BB: Well, we recorded 40 tracks, so
there might be another disc. I'd like to think others might
go in there and work with Nora, though. Woody wrote for
everyone, and there's plenty of room for interpretation.
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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.