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.

The second record offers interesting thematic turns as well. Bragg's "Hot Rod Hotel" revisits a night of revelry à la "Walt Whitman's Niece" from the first Mermaid, but from the point of view of the clean-up crew. Wilco puts a cracked mirror to the fond, almost hokey reverie of "California Stars" with Vol. II's "Remember the Mountain Bed." It's a wiser, sadder reflection on a long-ago idyll, rich with sensual details: bleeding holly berries, "turpentine smells from eucalyptus and pine," the taste of chewed twigs, fingers playing in grassy moss. In nine long verses, Tweedy, and Guthrie, move the mountain between intimate flights of romance and the bittersweet burden of a meaningful life and legacy.

Most of the outright differences between the two Mermaid releases actually comes at the hands of Wilco. As on Mermaid Avenue, Bragg continues to play himself as Woody Guthrie, the philosopher, humorist and visionary, yet his tracks wouldn't seem the slightest bit out of place on one of his own releases. Wilco, though, seems to have taken the project as an opportunity to pursue its own evolution, lyrically and musically, as it has with its last two efforts, Being There, and its production-pop masterpiece, Summerteeth. If Wilco had broken new ground with "Christ for President," the group has all but conquered and planted its flag on the territory in Mermaid II.

In the opening track, "Airline to Heaven," Tweedy launches a Guthrie barb at the contemporary equivalent of money lenders in the temple in a catchy pop number which, aside from its strident lyrical content, is a radio-ready single. Elsewhere, the wordy soliloquy "Feed of Man" turns on a phrase in which Guthrie promises to help "squeeze yourself up a new kind of God." Still, the darkest and strangest Mermaid II track is Wilco's "Blood of the Lamb," delivered as if Nick Cave were fronting a Salvation Army band. The song is, in fact, very much about salvation, and includes a verse suggesting that learning to love your neighbors "of all colors, creeds and kinds" is essential to the process.

Even Wilco's music on Mermaid II underscores the band's evolution as a thinking person's pop-rock outfit. It's entirely likely Guthrie had been exposed to the Buddy Holly motif that Wilco mines in the music to "Flying Saucer," with its "Peggy Sue" rhythm guitar part, or to the coffee house jazz arrangement the band lends to Tweedy's beat-poet reading of "Feed of Man." Guthrie even might recognize a Fats Domino rhythm or Chuck Berry lick in the group's treatment of Bragg's house-rockin' "All You Fascists." And in his delivery of "Airline to Heaven," Tweedy even offers the sincerest form of flattery to Guthrie's best-known acolyte, Bob Dylan, a frequent performer in Guthrie's sick room during his final years.

Wilco recorded four new tracks especially for Mermaid II, and those set Guthrie's lyrics in contrasting post-rock effects, with melodies and arrangements that could only have arisen from the combined influences of American popular music over the years since Guthrie left this mortal coil. Bragg puts it best: "They do sound very post-Summerteeth, don't they? I don't think that's a bad thing."

When the first Mermaid album was recorded, Bragg explains, he'd been working on it with Nora for 18 months or so. Wilco had been on board for only six months and worked on the project in between studio stints for Summerteeth. "I think that's probably why they wanted to do some new ones," says Bragg, "because they've added some new ideas, you know? They were in a very nice position of being able to look at the album and say, 'Okay, it doesn't have a pop song, here's "Secrets of the Sea." It doesn't have a long ballad, here's "Remember the Mountain Bed." It doesn't have a "Walt Whitman"-type song to kick it off, here's "Airline to Heaven."' I think that really helped the record."

As for whether the resulting Mermaid music would have been to Guthrie's liking, there's just no telling about that any more than about his knowledge of baseball. Guthrie often appropriated traditional folk melodies to fit to his lyrics, and as for his own melody making, Bragg notes, "He's like myself. He didn't write music. The new songs I've got words written down for -- if anything happened to me, you'd never know what the tunes were. It just so happens the last 15 years of his life, Woody did no recording."

Guthrie did provide hints, though, in some cases. For instance, in the margins of the lyrics to "Flying Saucer," he wrote, "Supersonic Boogie." Says Bragg, "When I read those words . . . Woody had written this message to me 50 years ago . . . that not only gave me the key to this song, but opened the doors to everything else."

The lyrics to "Joe DiMaggio" had instantaneous appeal for the same reason, and, with "Against Th' Law," (spiritedly performed on Vol. IIby Cory Harris), those were the first of Guthrie's lyrics that Bragg set to music. "The thing to me that was important about 'Joe DiMaggio' the song was that it put Woody clearly in the second half of this century, in the frame with someone who had married Marilyn Monroe. It kinda gives us Woody with tail fins, if you know what I mean. People like to think of him as this kind of simple guy from out in the prairies; well, dammit, he lived half his life in New York City. That song really drew me in."

So how was Wilco able to wrest the song from him? "They didn't think I had enough respect for baseball," Bragg says dolefully. "They were really nice about it, but they were very emphatic about it. There was no opportunity of debate about this. I had obviously already learned in my discussions with them about American football and soccer that sport is very important to them.

"So I accepted it, and I think it sounds great."

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