Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 1

I continue scavenging my own body of work for fun things to repost here. Have another album review, written sometime back in 2003, I believe, when I was but a poor graduate student.

It seems like a bad idea on the face of it–take a bunch of unused Woody Guthrie song lyrics and let a couple of contemporary musicians set them to music and record them. God only knows what sort of crap you’ll get–either stuff that tries too hard to be Guthrie and fails, or stuff that completely ignores Guthrie and fails.

But what we ended up with isn’t either of those. No, what we got is absolutely wonderful, 15 songs of absolute majesty, humor, warmth, wit, anger, and acute insight into not only the mind of one of American music’s most important songwriters, but a glimpse of the America he lived in and how that America was the same as and different from the America of his dreams. What we got is Mermaid Avenue.

The songs on this album (and its second volume, released a couple of years later) all used lyrics Woody Guthrie wrote from the late 1940s until his death in 1967. Guthrie himself stopped performing after about 1950 due to a neurological disease, but he kept writing until he died. In the early 1960s, he offered the lyrics to a young Bob Dylan, who initially took him up on the offer but was never able to get them from Guthrie’s wife (Dylan made mention of this in his excellent memoir Chronicles, Volume 1). Instead, almost forty years down the road, Guthrie’s daughter offered the lyrics to Billy Bragg, who promptly called up alt-country heroes Wilco and got down to picking out fifteen absolute gems for this record.

The album opens with the drunken sea shanty “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” a sly and raucous song about two drunken sailors in search of comfort and whores (there’s really no more polite way to phrase it, honest). It just gets better from there. Guthrie had a knack for capturing very human portraits in his music and for crafting wonderful images in his short, economical lyrical style.

The songs are divyed up between Bragg and Wilco, each taking a turn fronting the song (which means you’ve got either Bragg or Jeff Tweedy singing, essentially, though there’s one tune where Natalie Merchant takes the lead vocal to great effect). Each partner in this endeavour came up with music for a particular set of lyrics–Bragg was responsible for songs like “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key,” while Wilco did duty on “California Stars” and “Christ for President.” Each partner brought a different style and aesthetic to their songs, but the overall effect is very pleasing and very consistent. Bragg’s numbers tend to be more universal and enjoyable, though Wilco turns the children’s song “Hoodoo Voodoo” into a bright, cheerful sing-along. Wilco’s contributions, while not slouchy in any way, just aren’t as timeless as Bragg’s, and seem very much a part of the moment they were written in (you can hear that Wilco is between their Being There and SummerTeeth albums).

This is an album of wonderful gems of songs. “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key” is a funny, dirty song about a young man in Okfuskee County (home of Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s home town) who convinces a young lady to go off with him into the woods to a “holler tree” (that’s “hollow tree” for those of you who don’t speak Okie) and take off her shirt by telling her that, yes, he may be ugly, but “there ain’t nobody who can sing like me.” “Christ for President” is a reminder that, while Guthrie was a Christian and a man of fairly traditional values, he was also a leftist who thought that big business and the government were ruining the country and perhaps America would be better if it followed true Christian values, starting with tossing the ol’ moneychangers out of the Temple.

Mermaid Avenue is a rousing, eclectic collection of excellent songs. It’s a reminder of Guthrie’s breadth and depth as a writer, and a fitting tribute to one of the icons of American music. But this is no mere tribute album; rather, it’s a true collaboration–lyrics from Guthrie, and music that makes no attempt to mimic or imitate Guthrie’s musical style from Bragg and Wilco. But even without attempting to sound like Guthrie in their playing, the partners manage to invoke Guthrie’s spirit and power in their music. It sounds nothing like the sort of songs Guthrie himself wrote, but you can feel his energy pulsing through these songs nonetheless. And that’s the greatest thing about the record–Bragg and Wilco’s contributions don’t feel grafted on, nor do Guthrie’s lyrics feel like they were crammed into existing melodies in some shoddy, half-assed effort to make money off a dead man. No, this is real collaboration across forty years’ time, and it works. I can’t wait to go pick up Volume 2 next paycheck.

One thought on “Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 1

  1. This is one of absolute favorite albums, yet had no idea about the Guthrie connection. Clearly I wasn’t paying attention!

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