The proposition was this: From the thousands of unpublished lyrics housed in the Woody Guthrie Archive in Manhattan, choose a batch of lyrics by this American icon and breathe musical life into them. Only a fool would bite.
Well, English-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and Chicago's Wilco accepted the invitation from Guthrie's daughter Nora and have now released a fifteen-song collection. Their skeptic-defying Mermaid Avenue is one of the best albums of the year, and certainly one of the most unusual collaborations in recent music history. "In his lifetime Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded 270 sides for Folkways Records," explains Bragg, "of which maybe 50 percent were his own songs. The archive has more than 2500 complete lyrics, so 95 percent of the songs Woody Guthrie ever wrote we haven't heard yet."
Nora Guthrie approached Bragg in 1995 with the idea of putting some of her father's lyrics to music. Bragg, a vocal left-wing activist (as was Guthrie), and as much a fan of Guthrie's songwriting as he is a direct descendant of the man's art form, jumped at the chance. But rather than present the material as a sort of "tribute" project with a star-studded lineup, Bragg thought that a more personal vision was in order.
"Tribute albums are fine, but they very often focus on the personality of the performance rather than the work of the person who the album is a tribute to. So I thought what I need to do is find a band that plays together on all the tracks so there's a continuity. I'd heard Wilco's Being There, I knew [Wilco guitarist Jeff] Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo [his former band], and it seemed to me that Wilco had roots that stretch back farther than a lot of the American roots bands at the moment. There's something deep about the Midwest that runs all the way down to Oklahoma. There's a certain sensibility that you don't find in L.A. or New York."
Bragg and Wilco pored over many -- though by no means all -- of the lyrics in the archive in search of the right material for the project. "The only time I got wigged out or spiritually misty-eyed doing this thing," admits Tweedy, "was going to the archive and coming across the original hand-written manuscript for 'Hard Traveling' or 'This Land Is Your Land' just sitting there, in front of me. I sang 'This Land Is Your Land' in grade school."
Confronted with a legacy as revered as Guthrie's, and contemplating writing music and singing lyrics that the writer himself never performed (at least on record) would seem an awesome, if not hazardous, undertaking. "I think that would've been a fear if there were only twelve songs left and I had all twelve songs," says Bragg. "There's so much stuff there that if Billy Bragg makes a fucking bad record doing it, then someone else can come and have a go. There are enough lyrics for more than 200 full albums. You could make a whole album just of songs about VD."
"People kind of assume that you'd have this fear of fucking up Woody Guthrie's legacy or something. I don't think I'm smart enough to do that," Tweedy adds with a laugh. "I don't think anybody could really do that. Maybe Madonna's a big enough cultural figure to really screw with it. This record was a lot riskier than I thought it was. Wilco didn't have a lot to gain other than the experience of doing it, which was really exciting. We ran the risk of getting picked apart and picked on for doing this."
Bragg and Wilco inependently chose the lyrics they wanted to work on. Bragg had eighteen months to peruse them, whereas the guys in Wilco made only a few visits to the archive ("I think we made it to the H's," says Tweedy). In the Lennon/McCartney tradition, whoever wrote the music sings the song (with one exception, "Birds and Ships," which features music by Bragg and a vocal by his friend Natalie Merchant). Both songwriters say they picked material they could most personally relate to, but they shared one main criterion in their choices: "I was encouraged by Nora to reveal the Woody Guthrie that isn't known to the public," says Bragg. "So instead of choosing songs about the Dust Bowl, I was more attracted to songs like 'My Flying Saucer,' or 'Ingrid Bergman,' or 'Walt Whitman's Niece' -- you know, songs about beer and pussy."
"Knowing that he professed to have written something every day, he couldn't have only written about unions or jumping trains or Grand Coulee Damn," Tweedy elaborates. "He had to have written stuff about sex. You know -- some of the bigger topics. That was one of the only directions that Nora was really sure about."
Her instinct was right. What you hear on Mermaid Avenue is a collaboration of past and present -- modern folk-based rock and country paired with surprisingly personal, contemporary, and universal lyrics. "Walt Whitman's Niece" is a bawdy sailors' tale sung in jaunty call and response, and the nonsensical lyrics of "Hoodoo Voodoo" (delivered with hysterical vocal brilliance by Tweedy) reveal a playful Guthrie rarely glimpsed in his recorded works. Wilco's rambling backdrop to "California Stars," a beautiful, romantic song of yearning, is perfect, as are the keening swells of "One by One" and the joyful twang of "Hesitating Beauty."
Bragg, who established his early career with highly political songs sung in his flat, pugnacious voice, also turns in some of the album's highlights. The frisky love song to "Ingrid Bergman" becomes appropriately intimate with only an acoustic guitar and Bragg's understated delivery, and the way-pre-ERA-era "She Came Along to Me" ("But I'm sure the women are equal," Guthrie wrote in 1942, "and they may be ahead of the men") gets a solid workout from Bragg and Wilco. "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," with the arresting vocal duo of Bragg and Natalie Merchant, harks back to the Celtic folk tradition from which Guthrie, Bragg, and Wilco descend, and it suits this winking tale of a young Guthrie courtin' with his favorite pick-up line: "Ain't nobody that can sing like me."
Though these lyrics reveal a more rounded Guthrie, Bragg and Wilco couldn't completely avoid the political nature of much of his recorded work. "Christ for President" ("Cast your vote for the carpenter") has all the pumping swagger of an old folk-rally song. "His handwritten manuscript for that was reprinted in that Passages of Plenty book that came out a few years ago," explains Tweedy. "When I read those lyrics, they seemed almost sarcastic. Maybe Woody wouldn't have sung it so tongue-in-cheek. Maybe he was more serious about it -- I don't really know. It's kind of strange that in 1998, the lyrics are like 50 years old, but they still sound like they could piss some people off, you know? Maybe that was in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, if nothing else."
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Bragg's "I Guess I Planted" ("Union song, union battled") and the album-closing Robin Hood tale "The Unwelcome Guest" tread distinct political waters. "I look to my own background and think about how I was inspired by the Clash, this band in 1977 that inspired me by writing anti-fascist slogans on their guitars. Woody Guthrie wrote 'This Machine Kills Fascists' on his guitar. So who was the first punk?"
What Mermaid Avenue does best is bring the often dusty legacy of Guthrie and his universal themes back into focus at the end of the millennium, taking the songwriter out of the folk museum and planting him firmly on the urban, very modern street corner from which he wrote most of his songs. Bragg believes that knowing about Guthrie's move to Brooklyn, New York, from Pampa, Texas, in 1940 is essential to understanding the man and the songwriter.
"You've got to think of him as someone who came to live in New York at a time when New York was perhaps the most exciting cultural city in the world. He spent half his life in New York City. All the elements of pop music were present. He was not just some guy who lived in the Thirties in the Dust Bowl. He's a modern person. He belongs in the early Fifties with Marilyn Monroe. I'd say he's one of the top five literary giants this country produced in the Twentieth Century. He's a guy who was born on the cusp of folk music and pop music. He's a guy who lived at a time when radio was just beginning, when the record industry as we know it hadn't really formed. He was a guy who, instead of reading about those things in the paper and writing songs about them as so many artists do -- myself included -- he fucking did it. He went out there and did it.