Got a Woody

With Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco turn a myth into a man

Billy Bragg knew from the beginning what Mermaid Avenue sounded like in theory: a freakin' disaster. He could hear the snickers even before he began the task of writing music to lyrics left behind by Woody Guthrie, words for which the Dust Bowl prophet never wrote any music. "On paper, it's boring political geezer who played solo and sang about Communism in the 1930s matched up with boring political geezer who played solo and sang about Communism in the 1980s," Bragg says. "What do you think you're going to get?" Yes, it could have been a nightmare, all right, Oklahoma hymns rendered in Cockney howls--a real bore; they didn't call him Billy Drag for nothing a few years back.

But the debacle that could have been, should have been, never emerged. Instead, Mermaid Avenue is, so far, the year's most compelling, revelatory album, one that grows only more illuminating with each listen. It seems at first glance an accidental masterpiece: words written by Guthrie (born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912; died in Queens, New York, in 1967), melodies provided by Bragg (born in England 10 years before Guthrie's death) and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett (two Midwestern young men), music made by all of them as if on a whim. That it hangs together at all is no small miracle.

Yet Mermaid Avenue is a joy to listen to, the sound of young men making human a long-dead songwriter who exists in the public consciousness, if at all, as a barren, soulless legend. It's the sound of Bragg once and for all merging the heart with the brain; and it's the sound of Tweedy making tangible the antiquated rock-and-roll echoes that have always permeated his best work with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. It's folk music rendered by former punk-rockers who have always understood that a soft whisper and a sharp word made for staggering one-two punch combinations. Mermaid Avenue is what happens when three distinct personalities collide with history and make music that's timeless. "What a surprise," Bragg says, laughing slightly.

The project began as a happy chance of fate: Bragg had been invited to perform in 1992 at a concert in New York City commemorating Woody Guthrie's 80th birthday, where he performed two Guthrie tunes among his own lefty love songs. Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, was in the process of compiling her father's writings--there exist more than 2,500 unrecorded lyrics--in an archive, and she thought Bragg might be the perfect person to give new life to lyrics her father never had the chance to record. In 1954, Woody was diagnosed with Huntington's chorea, a hereditary disease attacking the nervous system, and was unable to perform from then until his death in 1967.

Bragg and Nora spoke about the project often over the next four years, during which time Bragg looked for a young American band to join him on the record; he thought it only appropriate that he pair up with a band whose roots were tangled with those of Guthrie's. In the end, he settled on Wilco: He had met Jeff Tweedy a handful of times while Tweedy was in Uncle Tupelo and had always felt he had a sense of pop music's history that went back decades instead of only days. (Indeed, Uncle Tupelo's album No Depression took its title from an old Carter Family song.)

"There are a lot of American bands that are rootsy around at the moment, but it just seemed to me that Wilco's roots went back further," Bragg says of his reasons for asking Tweedy to join his project. "There seemed to be a consciousness of music from before the turn of the century. Some of these rootsy bands just go back about 40 years, to sort of the beginning of pop. They think that's where it all started. Well, it didn't. It started long before that, and with someone like Woody, you're talking about 1912. What was Dallas like in 1912? You're talking about the frontier. Oklahoma wasn't even a state until 1905."

Bragg had begun doing demos for the album in 1995, while working on his own album William Bloke. He approached Wilco the following year about doing the record, then introduced Tweedy and the band to Nora in 1997 at the New York Fleadh Festival, where Wilco and Bragg were performing. Bragg had already chosen which songs he'd like to perform from the archives, but he left it to Tweedy to find his own. "I felt he would find songs I had overlooked, and he did," Bragg says. "And that to me justified bringing in somebody else."

Bragg, for instance, had initially overlooked the song "California Stars," which Guthrie had written while he was living in Long Beach. To him, the song was too simple, too romantic, a daydream in which a man imagines resting his "heavy head on a bed of California stars." Bragg thought it lacked the political edge of "She Came Along to Me," a song in which Guthrie dreams of a day when "10 million years from now, we'll all be just alike / Same color, same size, working together / And maybe we'll have all the fascists out of the way then / Maybe so." And it wasn't an oddball fantasy like "Ingrid Bergman," where Guthrie envisions making love to the actress on the island of Stromboli.

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