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.

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?'"

Mermaid Avenue is just as grand a revelation for those who long ago wrote off Bragg as a sloganeering prophet himself. Not so long ago, Bragg seemed destined to be crushed underneath the world's weight--a pity since no one asked him to take on such a burden. He came off as a man wracked by guilt and the consequences of making the wrong decision. He sang about everything from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the busting of the unions to the plight of Russians in a Cold War era. He sang "The Internationale" with his comrades, dreamed of conversations with Thomas Paine, tried to save the youth of America by turning old KKK slogans in on themselves, namedropped Mao Tse-tung and Phil Ochs in his lyrics. In essence, he came off like a cranky social-studies teacher who knew better than his students, who tried to brainwash instead of merely teach.

There were plenty of love songs along the way, and "A New England" off 1987's Back to Basics collection was the one Bragg song that struck the perfect balance between politics of the heart and the voting booth. It was about a young man's ("I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I'm 22 now but I won't be for long") attempt at winning the girl and saving his country at the same time ("I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl"). Bragg then was a kid who had no idea what he was talking about and nothing to guide him except his passions and his mistrust; he knew he had the solutions to everyone else's problems, just maybe not his own. Over time, Bragg grew more didactic and annoying: 1990's The Internationale is the dullest rock and roll record ever recorded, a series of ham-fisted political anthems that would have packed them in at Tiananmen Square; and substituting Phil Ochs for Joe Hill was hardly the solution. Workers of the world...whatever.

Don't Try This at Home, released in 1991, was a pleasant-enough stab at reviving his moribund sense of humor: "Sexuality" was playful ("I feel like a total jerk before your naked body of work"), the political references were often couched in acerbic laughs (the Kinks' "dedicated follower of fashion" became a "dedicated swallower of fascism"), and even when the message threatened to drown out the melody ("North Sea Bubble," "Rumours of War"), Bragg had crafted songs strong enough to withstand the preaching and pounding. Still, Bragg has said of that time, "I was chasing my tail a bit." The album was to be Bragg's last one for five years, ended with a song that hinted at the direction Bragg's private life was taking: In "Wish You Were Her," Bragg spoke directly to a would-be lover and proclaimed in simple, honest language: "That I wanted you to be my wife / Is the worst-kept secret of my life."

Shortly after that, Bragg married a woman named Juliet, the ex-wife of a close friend, and they had a son, Jack, and Bragg retreated from the stage and the studio to concentrate on being a father and a husband. He wrote late at night, if even then; he played for his son while sitting on the couch or even during bath time. Finally, Bragg returned to the studio with a batch of demos that reflected not merely his new domestic situation but the radically different times in which he now found himself.

The miners were no longer on strike, Thatcher was gone, the Cold War had ended, no more Reagan-Bush; for God's sake, what's a pissed-off lefty to do but write about being a happy dad? And so he created (or turned into, really) the title character of 1996's sparkling William Bloke, an album whose sentiments are summed up on the song "Brickbat": "I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms / But now you'll find me with the baby in the bathroom." The vitriolic radical who dominated such early albums as Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy and Workers Playtime had been replaced with the father-husband looking for a little solace in an unfriendly world; the resolute ideologue has given way to the compassionate pragmatist, no less "political" than the earlier incarnation but somehow more honest and real than the guy who took on Margaret Thatcher only to watch her disappear into memory.

William Bloke was made by a man who didn't know whether to vote one way for himself or the other for his child ("But whatever choice I make / I will not forsake"); it was about a woman who strives not to lose her identity to a husband or a child, and the kid who looks at the moon and forever dreams of becoming an astronaut. For the first time in a career that once seemed destined to flounder in coy, didactic aphorisms--he was the left's Bob Roberts by the late '80s, Woody Guthrie without the sense of humor--Bragg asked more questions than he had naive answers for. For the first time, he wrote about "socialism of the heart"--making the choices that are best for all of us, not merely for one young man who believed the world revolved around his decisions. And in the end, William Bloke was the record that proved Billy Bragg was indeed one of Guthrie's bastard children--his politics were, finally, so very personal.

"I felt William Bloke was an album where I was trying to work out what a 40-year-old Billy Bragg who's a parent sounds like," he says now. "I'm coming to the conclusion as I get older that I'm not a political songwriter at all. I'm an honest songwriter. It's just that the honesty I bring to my songs about relationships cannot just end at the bedroom door. It's got to come out into the world with me, and when it comes out into the world, it starts to talk about the things it sees in the world. I'm not a political songwriter. I'm an honest songwriter, and so was Woody."

There are hundreds upon hundreds of Guthrie's political songs left to be discovered and recorded in the archives (a second volume of Mermaid Avenue sits completed, awaiting release), and Bragg could well have chosen to make a record consisting purely of them. A decade ago, he probably would have. But Bragg has grown considerably since his younger days singing "Nicaragua Nicaraguita" and "The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions" or "Like Soldiers Do." He still shouts "Smash fascism!" from the stage, but now, on occasion, he will whisper it as well.

"I put down some markers with William Bloke, but I didn't define myself," Bragg says. "Now, having Mermaid Avenue and these possibilities, I still feel when I come to define myself, I'll still be taken as much from Mermaid Avenue as I am from William Bloke. It's a good time to be thinking about taking on possibilities without getting too hooked up on being Billy Bragg. I don't have to be Billy Bragg anymore." Now, for the time being, he can be Woody Guthrie.

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