Folk Implosion

Billy Bragg and Wilco continue to decipher the mystery and misunderstood legend of Woody Guthrie with the second installment of Mermaid Avenue

The deal with the Mermaid Avenue recording sessions was, if you wrote the music, you got to sing the song. So Nora Guthrie was a bit perplexed to find Wilco had recorded a Billy Bragg number, set to her father Woody's lyric, "Joe DiMaggio." As Bragg tells it, she confronted Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on the matter, and when Tweedy explained that he felt Bragg didn't know enough about baseball to give the song's namesake due respect, she teased, "What makes you think Woody knew about baseball?"

It is, of course, a valid question. Who knows what Woody knew? Even his close friends have by and large passed on, or may not remember accurately the details of a life that has since been obscured by legend. All of which makes the Mermaid Avenue project the more compelling for its mystery. Admittedly, it is an odd prospect, having the lyrics of a Depression-era icon of American music interpreted by a British punk balladeer and a critically acclaimed, if not quite ready for People magazine, Midwestern pop-rock band. What could they all be thinking?

No matter, actually. Nora Guthrie's agenda has always been on the table: The thought of Woody, imprisoned in fogie-folk legend like an artifact locked in amber, is anathema to her. This daughterly resistance to his cultural mortality was heightened when she undertook the daunting task of cataloguing and preserving his outsized legacy -- more than 2,000 lyrics, drawings, writings and other papers her mother had stashed years prior in metal filing cabinets. Who could get them a hearing today, especially from a public increasingly disconnected from the folk tradition -- the same people who stay home in droves from even Pete Seeger's rare appearances?

Bragg (far left, standing) and Wilco keep Guthrie's memory alive with Mermaid Avenue Vol II.
Ken Schles
Bragg (far left, standing) and Wilco keep Guthrie's memory alive with Mermaid Avenue Vol II.
Bragg on Guthrie: "People like to think of him as some simple guy; well dammit, he lived half his life in New York City."
Bragg on Guthrie: "People like to think of him as some simple guy; well dammit, he lived half his life in New York City."

Luckily, she found a like mind in Bragg, who for all his profound Brit-ness and extended immersion in his own country's political debate, turns out to have the same working-class empathy and ideological leanings that her father had. Bragg, in turn, tapped Wilco to represent an update of the American breadbasket music traditions that were Guthrie's heritage, and the rest is the uniquely historic Mermaid Avenue, of which the second disc was released earlier this summer.

"I come from a politics that's ideological," says Bragg. "The politics that I learned in Britain in the 1980s were of left and right. Very clearly, very oppositional politics. American politics isn't like that [anymore], but it was when Woody was writing the songs. Woody was writing in the '30s and '40s, at a time when there was a left and a right in America, and soon after the election of 1948, when the left really did pose a genuine -- not a threat -- but a possibility of taking democratic power in your country.

"Those ideas did not survive McCarthyism," he continues. "They have been written out, and smothered, really. So, the things that Woody wrote about in the '30s and '40s are the things I was writing about in the '80s and '90s -- unionism. They're caught between left and right, the struggle to make a better society rather than a society based purely on consumption and exploitation. Those issues are issues very close to me."

Guthrie's and Bragg's political leanings provide a foundation for the second installment of Mermaid Avenue, in a way that was scarcely hinted at in 1998's first volume. The difference was at the core of an extended internal debate surrounding which songs should be included in the original release. The quandary was resolved only when all concerned agreed to a second release.

For example, Bragg says, "We had a conversation about 'All You Fascists,' that it was just too overly political. This is the sort of thing people would expect Woody Guthrie to write. [For the first release] we wanted the ones you wouldn't expect Woody to write. What we were trying to do was to strike a chord in a way that people kind of go, 'Hey, that's not what I was expecting to hear.' In order to do that, we did have to make them a little bit more accessible. Now that you understand, we can take you to a little bit darker place, I think."

Mermaid Avenue was generally lighthearted, often romantic and occasionally, as in "Walt Whitman's Niece" and "Ingrid Bergman," sexually sophomoric. When it did reveal the politics that inspired much of Guthrie's work, as in the spooky, McCarthy-era "Eisler on the Go" or "Unwelcome Guest," it was, predictably perhaps, at the hands of the ever-dogmatic Bragg. Wilco's only foray into this area was the rousing "Christ for President," the most obvious social commentary the band had ever committed to record.

That's not to say Mermaid IIis entirely without its light moments. Bragg sings a simple love song to a flying saucer; Tweedy lobs the catchy, featherweight single "Secret of the Sea" and romps through Bragg's all-American tribute to Joe DiMaggio with the kind of heart that, with due respect to Nora, really could beat only in a kid who grew up devoted to America's pastime. Natalie Merchant's entry is a charming birthday song, and Tweedy closes the proceedings with "Someday Some Morning Sometime" -- an airy ditty lilted by Jay Bennett's charming Delayaphone/bell backing.

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