Uncle Barking! Essex Bard and Jeff Tweedy salute Woody Guthrie…
When Nora Guthrie met Billy Bragg at a concert to mark her father’s 80th birthday, Woody Guthrie’s reputation was fixed. He was a patron saint of the 1960s folk revival; the dustbowl balladeer who mentored Dylan and inspired the pre-Clash Joe Strummer (aka Woody). He was an icon, to be revered and occasionally dusted down.
At that concert, where the memory of Woody was serenaded by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Nora put a proposition to Bragg. In her father’s archive, she had discovered lyrics, but not music, for 3000 songs. They were written from the 1940s’ onwards, when Guthrie was living in a house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, in Coney Island.
In the lyrics, Nora discovered a side to her father that was quite different to the image of the dustbowl balladeer. The songs were sophisticated and urban. Yes, there were numbers about religion, fascism and injustice. But Guthrie was also writing about flying saucers and (with the hard rock of his lust barely contained by a volcano metaphor) Ingrid Bergman.
Nora invited Bragg to put tunes to the words. (Woody, when hospitalised, had made the same invitation to Dylan, but Bob was reportedly scared away by Arlo Guthrie’s babysitter). Bragg, in turn, engaged Wilco, having been impressed by the band’s adaptability on Being There. And, in the manner of the Basement Tapes, but with the whole of rock history to play with, they jammed (like Chuck Berry! Like Metallica! Like Tom Waits!) until the music matched the words.
The project was a success, producing two Grammy-nominated albums, and introducing Guthrie to a new audience. Musically, it offered treats for fans of both Bragg and Wilco. “California Stars” could grace any Wilco album, and “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” is the essence of Bragg.
Still, as Bragg limbers up to celebrate Guthrie’s 100th birthday, it’s a surprise to discover that a further 17 tracks were recorded, although a couple have escaped from the vault in the last few years. The beautiful “When The Roses Bloom Again” was presumably recorded in error, as Guthrie didn’t write it (Will D Cobb is credited), but it’s a gorgeous song (also covered by Laura Cantrell). And the financial crisis flushed out “The Jolly Banker”, a Tweedy-sung folk tune which could have been composed for the Occupy movement.
Listening to volume three, it’s clear that many of these songs were probably held back because they conformed to preconceived opinions about Guthrie. That doesn’t make them any less good. The highlight is “Listening To The Wind That Blows”, which plays like one of those great broken-hearted Wilco ballads, while placing Guthrie on the shore looking over to “this great and crowded city, where the silver dollar flows”. Fans of Uncle Tupelo will also appreciate the bustling pro-union folk of “Chain Of Broken Hearts”. And it’s interesting to hear Bragg stretching himself, spitting bile like Elvis Costello on “Give Me A Nail”, or crooning against droning pipes on “Go Down To The Water”.
Bragg contends that Mermaid Avenue refashioned Guthrie’s reputation, establishing him as the first alternative songwriter. Certainly, it underlines his rebel spirit. It also displays the durability of his lyrics. These songs, rehydrated after 50 years, sound bright and timeless.
For Bragg, the project had obvious benefits. He is now firmly established as the torch carrier for Guthrie’s radical, playful spirit. For Wilco, Mermaid Avenue represents a high point in the relationship between the late Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy. Bragg suggests these albums contain some of Bennett’s finest work. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the way his organ brings a note of mournful solemnity to the epic “Remember The Mountain Bed”. It sounds like a hymn, a poem, a serenade. And like nothing you’d expect from Woody Guthrie.
EXTRAS: 7/10 Albums are available for individual download. Box includes documentary Man On The Sand, and booklet with introduction by Nora Guthrie.
What was the original idea?
Nora (Guthrie) wanted to do was to make Woody into a three-dimensional character. Her concern was that he’d become an icon, almost like you couldn’t get to the real man. She felt the lyrics in the archive said more about Woody than “This Land Is Your Land”.
So you were writing a biography through his songs?
We were connecting with him. Very few of the songs we chose were written in the 1930s. They were almost all written in the 1940s. That means they were written in New York. It’s an urban Woody Guthrie. He’s not the guy riding the railroads.
It’s like Robert Johnson – everyone thinks of the delta blues, yet he could play any style…
Woody’s the same – you always think of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, Grapes of Wrath. That was part of Woody, but… are you familiar with On The Town? Sinatra and Gene Kelly in 1948. They chase some women out to Coney Island. Woody lived there in 1948. So, yes, put him in Grapes of Wrath, but him in On The Town too. That’s what Nora was talking about – the Woody Guthrie who wanted to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of a volcano.
INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR MCKAY