Woody Guthrie lyrics find the right tunesmith in Bragg | AspenTimes.com
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Woody Guthrie lyrics find the right tunesmith in Bragg

Stewart Oksenhorn

When Nora Guthrie found a trunkful of lyrics written by her father, the folksinger Woody Guthrie, in the family home on Brooklyn’s Mermaid Avenue, she knew she would have to find the right somebody to set the words to music. Her choice of Billy Bragg was far from an obvious one, but has turned out to be the perfect one.

Guthrie – born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Oklahoma; a child of the Depression; wandering minstrel of saloons and labor camps; longtime Brooklynite; writer of “This Land Is Your Land” – was as quintessentially American as they come. Bragg, a native and resident of the British Isles, isn’t even American, and his profile in the States was well below the radar. But Bragg has long been known for his protest songs that championed the worker, a bent that puts him right in tune with Guthrie and his politics.

Bragg’s stateside profile rose tremendously with the 1998 release of “Mermaid Avenue.” The CD, a collaboration between Bragg and American band Wilco, featured Guthrie’s lyrics set to music by Bragg and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, with Bragg taking the majority of lead vocals. “Mermaid Avenue,” recorded in Dublin, put Guthrie’s words into a roots rock vein that struck just the right chord. The disc sold over a quarter-million copies, earned seemingly unanimous admiration from reviewers, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk recording. Listening to songs like the sorrowful “Way Down Yonder in the Minor Key” and the dreamy “California Stars,” “Mermaid Avenue” seemed to be the album Bragg was born to record.

With Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics numbering in the thousands, a followup to “Mermaid Avenue” seemed inevitable. And sure enough, “Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II” hits stores today. And while a third volume is no certainty, “Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II” shows that the combination of Bragg, Wilco and the ghost of Woody Guthrie has plenty of creative spark left. Once again, Bragg and Wilco allow Guthrie’s visions – of escape on “Airline to Heaven”; of liberty and equality on “All You Fascists”; of the dignity of the common worker on “Hot Rod Hotel” – to come fully to life.

While most of “Volume II” contains material recorded from the original “Mermaid Avenue” sessions, the new disc manages to take a step aside from the first release. Bragg and Wilco find even more directions to take Guthrie’s lyrics. “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again” – with lyrics that make a mythical hero of the late Jolting Joe 20 years before Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” – is set on a folk-bluegrass background, with Wilco’s Jay Bennett providing banjo and acoustic guitar. “Secret of the Sea,” which gives voice to Guthrie’s fascination with the sea, is given the Wilco roots-rock treatment that has earned the band accolades for such albums as “Being There” and last year’s “Summer Teeth.”

“Aginst th’ Law,” a protest against the narrowing of freedoms, is sung by Corey Harris and recalls the late Rick Danko fronting The Band in their glorious, countryish “Music From Big Pink” days. Natalie Merchant – like Harris, a guest on both recordings – lends her voice to the stripped-clean “I Was Born.” As with several of the tunes on the original “Mermaid Avenue,” “I Was Born” would not be out of place on an album of high-minded children’s nursery rhymes.

In a time when technology allows all kinds of time-traveling tricks in recording, “Mermaid Avenue” takes a low-tech approach: long-abandoned hand-written words, superb melodies, matching ideals, acoustic instruments. And it turns out to be a success that neither Guthrie nor Bragg could have had on their own. Sometimes, two heads – or three – are better than one.


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