Classic Americana Albums: Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid Avenue”

Elektra, 1998

Prior to the release of ‘Mermaid Avenue’ in 1998, for many people, the name of Woody Guthrie invoked images of a free-spirited, freight train hopping, American troubadour armed only with an acoustic guitar, who wrote political songs about the 1930’s Dust Bowl and ‘This Land Is Your Land’. ‘Mermaid Avenue’ did much to dispel this rather myopic view of Guthrie.

In 1992, Billy Bragg was invited to perform at a celebration of what would have been Guthrie’s 80th birthday held in Central Park in New York. His performance of ‘Vigilante Man’ with the rappers The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy at this event caught the attention of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. Nora Guthrie was the custodian of the Woody Guthrie archive which contained thousands of Guthrie’s lyrics for songs which had never been recorded and because Guthrie was not a classically trained musician, the melodies had been lost forever. Most of these lyrics had been written from the 1940s onwards, when Guthrie was living in a house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, in Coney Island, New York and reflect his many different interests from flying saucers to Ingrid Bergman.

In the spring of 1995, Nora contacted Bragg to see if he’d be interested in writing music for a selection of these lyrics. Bragg was enthusiastic about the project and subsequently contacted Wilco because, at the time, he felt they sounded “like the ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt band” and that their de facto leader, Jeff Tweedy, was “a marvellous songwriter” who “really understood what we were doing“. Tweedy was apparently initially indifferent to the offer. However, Wilco’s multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was more excited by the project and had an affinity with Bragg given that his previous band, Titanic Love Affair, was named after one of the Barking Bard’s lyrics.

Although Bragg had written melodies for a couple of the lyrics in the Guthrie archives in 1996, work on the record didn’t begin in earnest until December 1997 with a six day recording session with Wilco in Chicago. In early 1998, a further six-day session was convened in Dublin. Both sessions were productive with Bragg and Wilco yielding 40 or so songs, some of which only saw the light of day when Volumes II and III of the record were eventually released.

The opening song, ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, is a raucous affair recounting a visit to a house of ill repute by some sailors who meet a woman who claims that she’s the niece of the great American poet. It’s followed by ‘California Stars’ which has become a singalong staple of Wilco’s live sets. ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ is appropriately sung by Bragg given that its refrain starts with ‘Aint nobody that can sing like me’. In the song Guthrie reminisces about meeting a young girl in a ‘hollor tree’ in his home county of Ofuskee in Oklahoma. At the end of the first verse Natalie Merchant’s backing vocals come in beautifully to complement Bragg’s, adding some subtlety to the song, whilst Eliza Carthy’s wonderful fiddle fills out the middle eight. As part of the project Bragg went up to Boston to record some songs with Natalie Merchant. ‘Birds And Ships’ features just her vocals and a simple melody picked out by Bragg on an acoustic guitar.

Guthrie loved children. He had a total of eight offspring and he often wrote songs for them. ‘Hoodoo Voodoo’ is a kid’s song with a mishmash of nonsense lyrics, “Blackbirdy, bluejay, One two three four, Trash sack, jump back E F G, Biggy hat, little hat, fattyman, skinnyman, Grasshopper, greensnake, hold my hand”, being a typical example. The song was co-written by Bragg, Wilco and Corey Harris, the American blues and reggae musician who contributed to the sessions. In 2018, a previously lost version of ‘Hoodoo Voodoo’ by Guthrie alongside his frequent collaborators, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Sonny Terry, turned up on a tape of a session that they had recorded in 1954 for Folkways Records’ Moses Asch. It’s very different from the Bragg and Wilco version.

Guthrie was a philanderer but the upbeat ‘She Came Along To Me’, whose lyrics were written in 1946, is a sincere, albeit slightly backhanded, declaration of gender equality, “And they’ve not been any too well known, For brains and planning and organised thinking, But I’m sure the women are equal, And they may be ahead of the men”. It’s a great, stomping tune co-written by Bragg, Tweedy and Bennett, kicked off by Tweedy’s harmonica and underlain by some gorgeous slide guitar playing. The song ends with an optimistic view of the future, “When we’ll all be just alike, Same colour, same size, working together, And maybe we’ll have all the fascists out of the way by then”.

In 1950, the Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman was in Italy making the film ‘Stromboli’ with the Italian-American film director Roberto Rossellini. It inspired Guthrie, who had a massive crush on Bergman, to write about his love for the film star using some not so subtle double-entendres, “Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Let’s go make a picture, On the island of Stromboli, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, you’re so perty, You’d make any mountain quiver, You’d make firefly from the crater, Ingrid Bergman, This old mountain it’s been waiting, All its life for you to work it, For your hand to touch its hard rock, Ingrid Bergman”. The song could have sounded cliched but sung by Bragg, who’s accompanied just by an acoustic guitar, the lyrics are sweet and funny.

In January 1998, Nora Guthrie visited the recording sessions in Dublin bringing with her additional lyrics from the Guthrie archive, including ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’. The song came about when Bragg was strumming three chords on his guitar and Jay Bennett started messing around on a piano. Arising from a nap, Tweedy looked at the lyrics, began singing and the song was formed. Bragg says of the song’s birth, “It was a moment, and then it was done. A true collaboration. Nora found the lyrics, I had written the music, Jay played it, and Jeff sang it in a way that was beyond personal. It’s a song of despair, a man facing death wondering if anyone will remember him if he’s gone. And that performance was the four of us sending a clear message out to Woody that his scribbling was immortal“.

The album finishes with ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ one of the few tracks where Bragg and Tweedy harmonise together. The song references a Robin Hood-like figure who robs only from the rich and shares his wealth around but is cut down “Like an unwelcome guest”. Guthrie was on the list of subversives compiled by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities, and the song may be a metaphor for this witch hunt of mainly left-wing activists.

The completion of the album was fraught with Bragg, Bennett and Tweedy disagreeing on which mixes to use, as well as the record’s running order. Bragg and Wilco eventually patched things up enough to release Volumes II and III, but unfortunately they never toured the album together; as Bragg said, “That would be my only regret in the entire project. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, it’s just that I was between albums and they [Wilco] were in the middle of making one, and they were also at the beginning of their career. It was crucial for them to keep focused on what they were doing. So I put a band together with [ex-Wilco pedal steel player] Bob Egan, put ‘California Stars’ in my set, and just got on with it“.

Bragg, Wilco and their various collaborators did a fine job of bringing Guthrie’s songs to life and paving the way for other artists to write music for other lyrics in the Woody Guthrie archive. The final word on the record should go to Nora Guthrie who said, “The songs and artists, on all of the ‘Mermaid Avenue’ volumes are odes to “the works” in all of us. Billy and Wilco knew this. They got it”.

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Lovely article thanks. Its encouraged me to find the CD and transfer it to the car!