Got a Woody

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

In the end, Tweedy and Bragg came away from the archives with songs that were all over the place: intimate singer-songwriter confessionals ("One By One," which Tweedy selected, and "Another Man Done Gone," Bragg's choice), goofy children's songs filled with nonsense lyrics ("Hoodoo Voodoo," which sounds like something off Wilco's 1996 Being There), eloquent and forlorn love songs ("At My Window Sad and Lonely," "Birds and Ships") and hopeful daydreams about the day love truly conquers all ("She Came Along to Me").

What Mermaid Avenue manages to achieve is significant because it makes Guthrie whole again: It's at once playful and provocative, giddy and dead-serious, beginning with a song about drunken sailors on the make (a bleary, cheery "Walt Whitman's Niece") and ending with a man explaining how he steals from the rich and gives to the poor ("The Unwelcome Guest").

"This record gives the clear message we're not going to be pussyfooting with the legend of Woody Guthrie," Bragg explains. "We're going to be straight in there and taking it to the limit, so to speak. We're not making a Woody Guthrie record. Nora said, 'Don't choose songs that sound like the Woody Guthrie everybody knows, because everyone knows that Woody Guthrie.' You've got to get across the fact there's so much more to him, and it's still in the archive waiting to be appreciated. In that way, Woody Guthrie's career is not over. This is just the first Woody Guthrie album in 50 years, that's all. He still has something to contribute to American culture. He's still alive, still vibrant, still has something to tell us."

Guthrie is known best as The Great American Protest Singer whose trenchant words long ago faded into hollow echoes. He's remembered primarily as the author of "This Land is Your Land," a song taught to young school children as a hymn of patriotic pride; but never are kids taught the verses Guthrie originally wrote in 1940, when he became appalled at having to listen to Kate Smith howl "God Bless America" incessantly over the radio. Guthrie intended "This Land" as an ironic, caustic sentiment; it was a populist anthem written by a man disallowed into the Communist party because he refused to renounce religion. Now, it exists as an emasculated psalm, bereft of its true meaning: "By the relief office, I saw my people," he sang on the original version, his voice sad and defiant. "As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if / This land was made for you and me."

Left to the history books and the myriad Smithsonian Folkways collections are the talking Dust Bowl blues and other songs about men and women at the end of the end, stories about wanderin' workers roaming from town to town in search of a little work and a little food and a better life. He was the voice of the forgotten majority, documenting their struggles and their strength: "No matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work," he once said. "And the songs I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just like you." He wrote what he and Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger would later refer to as "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People."

John Steinbeck once wrote that "there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings...but there is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression." Yet Guthrie is hardly remembered at all now; he's mentioned only by critics and historians who connect the dots from Guthrie and Cisco Houston and Josh White to Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. His work isn't regarded as vital anymore; rather, it's referred to as a snapshot from a distant era, his name just one more from a miserable, mythic past whose contributions crumble away on brittle yellow paper. This land was made for you and me...Hardly.

Bragg had only thought of Guthrie as a performer of anti-fascist ballads; he looked upon Guthrie as the father of his favorite band, the Clash--"he's the first punk rocker," Bragg insists, explaining that Guthrie was, to his mind, the first songwriter who merged the personal and the political till they became an inseparable whole. Tweedy, a kid from Middle America raised on a diet of country and punk rock, looked upon Guthrie with far different eyes; the Uncle Tupelo co-founder saw Guthrie as the first singer-songwriter, a man whose heart dictated his politics, not the other way around. In the end, Bragg and Wilco went into Nora Guthrie's archives as men who thought they knew Guthrie in black and white and emerged with a Technicolor portrait.

"Woody has been tidied up and transduced to something that's manageable by the American people," Bragg says. "This archive threatens to totally overturn that, and that's what Nora Guthrie wants to achieve. Hopefully, this album will be a revelation for everybody. From the opening cut, they'll think, 'Bloody hell, Woody Guthrie, who would have thought?'"

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