Yesterday, I talked about Woody Guthrie and specifically about how he was reincarnated as Jonathan Coulton and started writing songs about computer programmers instead of union organizers. Though Guthrie only got a brief mention in my article that was ostensibly about Marian Call and the pros and cons of nerd culture, the socialist folkie has been on my mind a lot this week, mostly because I’ve been listening to Mermaid Avenue a lot.
Mermaid Avenue is the Brooklyn street upon which Woody Guthrie and his family lived in the years after World War II (before Guthrie moved to the hospital where he spent his final years). The album Mermaid Avenue is both for sure a Woody Guthrie album and kind of also not a Woody Guthrie album. Some clarification: back in 1995, Nora Guthrie approached British leftist folkie Billy Bragg (if you haven’t heard Billy Bragg, there are two songs you need to know right now: “Help Save the Youth of America” and “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”) and offered him the opportunity to write some new music for some of her father’s “lost” songs. In the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue, Bragg claims he had access to “over a thousand complete lyrics.” Bragg drafted Wilco to help him flesh out the tunes and Mermaid Avenue was born. Technically, the album is credited to Billy Bragg and Wilco, but it’s Billy Bragg and Wilco singing the lost songs of Woody Guthrie (a second volume was released in 2000 and rumors abound of a third volume in the works). Bragg says (again in the liner notes) that Nora Guthrie really wanted him to work “with her father to give his words a new sound and a new context.”
That new context could rightly be viewed as a coronation of Woody Guthrie as the raison d’etre for every alt.country wannabe that ever graced the pages of No Depression. Guthrie influenced everyone from the Clash (Joe Strummer even took to calling himself “Woody” for a while as a young man) to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his one-time cohort Jay Farrar (let’s face it – the best Uncle Tupelo songs are either punked-out nods to Woody Guthrie or campfire ripoffs of him, which is to say that the best Uncle Tupelo songs are fucking awesome) and it’s not that surprising that Summerteeth-era Wilco was so brilliant at setting his words to the right music. Bragg and Tweedy mostly split vocal duties (harmonizing wonderfully on album closer “The Unwelcome Guest”), with 1990s radio staple Natalie Merchant taking the helm on one song (“Birds and Ships”), and all three singers give career best performances – Tweedy’s comes on “California Stars” and we’ll talk about Bragg a little later because that dude is so well suited to this material that, especially in light of 2009’s lackluster Mr. Love and Justice, he might consider going back to the rest of those thousand complete songs and working his way through them an album at a time.
A couple of references here and there to unions and organizing sound a little dated to twenty-first century ears, but the overall effect of Mermaid Avenue is to bring Guthrie’s sense of community, equality, and justice to a generation of people who probably forgot that Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” (Guthrie, a total badass, penned “This Land” in response to the Irving Berlin-composed “God Bless America”, which he was apparently sick of hearing. Good thing Guthrie died before 9/11 because you couldn’t fart after that day without it sounding like “God Bless America”). “Eisler On the Go” is a moving tribute to Hanns Eisler who was deported from America after being labled the “Karl Marx of music,” which is a pretty retarded accusation when you stop to think about it for even five seconds. Guthrie writes, “I don’t know what I’ll do” when wondering how he’d fare going up against the House Un-American Activities Committee as Eisler did (Eisler’s buddy Bertolt Brecht was supposed to stand before HUAC too, but he never got to read the super-badass speech he wrote that basically told them to go fuck themselves). But Guthrie had a keen sense of humor and a dirty mind too – exhibit A for the prosecution being “Ingrid Bergman” in which Bergman’s beauty causes a volcano to erupt because it’s been waiting “for your hand to touch it’s hardrock.” Subtle, Woody. Subtle. But even if Mermaid Avenue doesn’t send you scrambling to your nearest record store for Guthrie’s records, it will treat you to some damn fine American music.
I don’t think Billy Bragg has ever been in better vocal form than he is on Mermaid Avenue and his awesome baritone injects “Walt Whitman’s Niece” with humor and puts some serious wind under the sails of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” And he fucking nails “Eisler On the Go.” The first time I heard it, before I knew who Eisler was, Billy Bragg’s austere performance had me convinced that Eisler was a friend of Guthrie’s who had died. I’m not ashamed to say I wept. Bragg, whose early solo albums tend to feature just him and a clangy electric guitar, is also served very well by having a full band behind him, especially since that full band is Wilco. “At My Window Sad and Lonely” could have been an outtake from Wilco’s sessions for Summerteeth (the first time I saw Wilco live, after Jay Bennett had left the band, I was delighted that they played both “At My Window” and “California Stars”).
The adept interplay between Billy Bragg and Wilco makes Mermaid Avenue a stellar alt.country/folk/rock record, but what’s remarkable to me about the album is that it’s definitely not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an album of songs penned by an underrated folk singer and brought to life by an underrated punk/folk singer and an (at the time) underrated American rock band. The combination is a testament to how awesome Guthrie was and how awesome Billy Bragg and Wilco are. That is, it’s precisely as great as the sum of its parts. Because the parts are fucking brilliant. Nora Guthrie published the following words of her dad’s in the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue and I just find them too completely badass to leave out of this post:
“The world is filled with people who are no longer needed – and who try to make slaves of all of us – and they have their music and we have ours – theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious nightmare- and without their musical and ideological miscarriages to compare our song of freedom to, we’d not have any opposite to compare music with – and like the drifting wind, hitting against no obstacle, we’d never know its speed, its power…”
If you want to know the power of Woody Guthrie’s words, you could do a lot worse than just rereading the above quote. If you want to know the power of great music, I suggest you listen to Mermaid Avenue.