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Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie

By Michael Bertin

JULY 13, 1998:  Basically, everything you know about Woody Guthrie is wrong, okay? I'm telling you that now." That's a pretty strong claim by Billy Bragg, the former one-man punk avant-guardian of all things socialist; stronger even when you consider that Bragg is a foreigner. If anyone has the authority to say something so seemingly audacious, however, it's Britain's Bragg, because he, in collaboration with the members of Wilco, has just released Mermaid Avenue, the first new Woody Guthrie album in decades. Guthrie, a native of Okemah, Oklahoma, moved west in the Thirties when the Great Plains turned to dust. A prolific writer and singer, Guthrie's music chronicled the migration of thousands and thousand of displaced Americans to California, and there he sang as a voice of protest on their behalf. His influence, even today, cannot be understated. No Guthrie, no Bob Dylan. No Guthrie, no Bruce Springsteen.

Yet, save for a scant few releases, by the time Guthrie made a second and permanent move to New York City in 1940, his recording career was all but over. That's why our knowledge of Guthrie is not so much wrong, but perhaps incomplete. As Bragg explains, "Everything you know about Woody Guthrie you only really know up to and before he came to New York City."

Even though Guthrie's recording career ended in the Thirties, his writing continued. In fact, with his 1967 death after a decade-long bout with Huntington's Disease, Guthrie left behind a box full of songs - songs that would remain lifeless and silent for over 30 years.

A decade or so into that silence, punk broke. Inspired by the musical agitators of the mid-Seventies, bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Billy Bragg put together his own short-lived punk outfit, Riff Raff. After that fell apart, Bragg joined the army only to find himself composing songs of rebellion in his head while driving tanks. Bragg promptly bought his release out of the military, and still in need of a cathartic and caustic release, picked his electric guitar back up and began playing solo.

Across a string of seven critically lauded albums, Bragg also became a fixture in the Eighties cause circuit, lending his voice to the crusade du jour - be it against apartheid or for striking British coal miners. In 1992, Bragg, along with a fairly dissimilar collection of artists that included Pete Seeger as well as the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, played at Woody Guthrie's 80th Birthday Party in New York City. There Bragg met Guthrie's daughter Nora, who was impressed by Bragg's interpretations of her father's material as well as his own left-leaning songs. Unknown to Bragg at the time, that meeting and that impression would prove to be the defibrillator jolt resurrecting Guthrie's voice.

Three years later, Bragg got a letter from Nora, asking him to "work with her father" - to make another Woody Guthrie album. The idea was to take what Woody had left behind and record some of it. Easy - except the simplicity of the idea did not mitigate the inherit intimidation factor.

illustration by Nathan Jensen

"I was a bit daunted by the prospect, actually," confesses Bragg. "I thought, 'Why is it me? Certainly this is a better job for an American.' But then I felt, 'Well, it's not like it's the last few fragments of Guthrie's legacy. There's over 1,000 complete lyrics here. So even if I do it and it doesn't turn out brilliant, someone else could have another go again.'"

By Nora's count, the archive of her father's orphaned works actually contains closer to 2,500 unrecorded lyrics. Once over the apprehension of tackling the project itself, Bragg did what any reasonable person would. He called Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

"I was very conscious that it might be very easy to accidentally misconstrue this project as a tribute record," says Bragg, "so I thought if we don't have loads of different artists on - just have one band and me - it would be a lot more straightforward. And Wilco are perfect. Wilco's roots went back further than the Forties. So many bands these days, their roots spans only go back 40 years. Wilco's go further."

Bragg's familiarity with Tweedy extends back to the first Uncle Tupelo album, which he had liked, so when the two crossed paths in London in 1996, Bragg offered him and the band - his first and only choice - the opportunity to do the album. That settled, Bragg had the rather formidable task of combing through the thousands of lyrics in the archive to pick out the handfuls that would get recorded; there was so much material that it was simply a question of sifting through it all, picking out songs, and then trying it out to see if it had any emotional resonance.

"You choose particular songs - a song like "Ingrid Bergman" - you play it for someone and you see if it has the same effect on them as it has one you: 'That's a great song. Let's record it.' Or another one where you sing it and everyone goes, 'Oh, don't record that. It's boring and political, Bill.' And you think, 'Okay, I won't do that one.'"

To really underscore the inexactness of the selection science, Bragg had originally passed up two of the most striking tracks on Mermaid Avenue (named for the street in New York on which Guthrie lived), saying 'No' to both the placid soliloquy "California Stars" and the playfully nonsensical "Hoodoo Voodoo" before Tweedy came in after him and brought them to life, as it were.

Aside from selecting material, there was one other tiny little problem with which Wilco and Bragg had to contend: There was no music. Guthrie's lyrics were just that - lyrics. Occasionally scribbled at the top of the pages were the legend "Words and music: Woody Guthrie," but there were no chords, no notations, nothing left behind indicating what actual music or what melody, if any, was running through Guthrie's head when he put words to the page.

Fortunately, within the archive itself Bragg found "two guiding points," or musical boundaries, within which he had to work. One was the exception to the no notation rule, a song called "My Flying Saucer." According to Bragg, Guthrie had written in the top left-hand corner of the page the words "supersonic boogie" as a reminder to himself of how to play the song.

"When you read that - that Woody Guthrie is writing supersonic boogie songs - you realize that any kind of music that was on the radio in the late Forties, early Fifties, is allowed in this project."

In fact, given that this song was written at a time when Frank Sinatra was routinely sending songs to the top of the pop charts, Guthrie's words are almost prophetic of what would soon happen to popular music; if anything, Guthrie's forward-thinking notation allowed Bragg and Wilco to mine the future from the Oklahoman's perspective.

At the other end of the spectrum was the second guiding point, a piece from 1941 in which Guthrie wrote about songs he learned from his mother. In it he mentioned a specific song called "Gypsy Davy," an English folk song that was first written down in England in 1630. In other words, there are the two parameters: 1630 and "supersonic boogie."

Yet having those guidelines didn't solve the problem of having to write the music. Think about it: the daughter of one of this country's most important singer-songwriters comes to you, not even an American, and tells you to have at what's left of her dad's life's work. And, oh, by the way, there's no music, so you'll have to add that.

Incredible as it may sound, not having music to work with wasn't problematic to Bragg at all. He may have been a bit reluctant to accept Nora's invitation to begin with, but once in, he and Wilco took a very elemental approach that freed them from having to contend with the potential anxiety-inducing obstacles of right and wrong - as in "Oh God, is this the right chord progression for these words?" In the briefest of hands-on illustrations, Bragg explains their collective approach to writing and what made their job relatively easy:

Me: It had to be nerve-racking to sit there and go, "I have to write music for this stuff?"

Bragg: No, no, no. Think about Woody Guthrie's most famous song.

Me: Uhh, "This Land Is Your Land"?

Bragg: Hum the tune.

Me: Hmm hmm hmm hmmmmm hmmmmm...

Bragg: [mercifully interrupting the pitiful attempt at music] Anything complex about that?

Me: Nope.

Bragg: Could it be more simple?

Me: Nope.

Bragg: No, I don't think so.

"You realize that's what these songs are," elaborates Bragg, "and there's that absolutely simple nursery rhyme of a song. Why has it lasted so long? Why is it such an important song to the American people? It's because of the strength of the lyric, right? All that's in the archive is lyrics. As long as you kept it simple and didn't do anything that was clever dick or got in the way of the lyrics, you're fine."

"Strength of the lyric" is a phrase that Bragg uses frequently, yet it's far from being a trivial assessment. There's something uniquely timeless about Mermaid Avenue. Even though these are words penned half a century ago, they are still relevant, still fresh, and still important, even. Here's a guy, Guthrie, who with "She Came Along to Me," was writing about gender politics before there was such a thing.

"I'd like to think that if you listen to this record and didn't know nothing about Woody Guthrie, you'd still think this is a brilliant record," asserts Bragg. "'California Stars' sounds like it could have been written last year. That's the strength of the lyrics, and the care we've taken in constructing the music.

"There's a lot of care gone into that, sure, but not care in a historic sense, but care in the sense that you would choose a frame for a picture that has already been painted. You wouldn't put an incredibly ornate, gilded frame around a picture that's straightforward and that illustrates something simply."

After working up some demos in Chicago in January of this year, the entire cast jetted over to Dublin where, with unobtrusive input from Nora, the bulk of what became Mermaid Avenue was put to tape. In fact Nora turned out to be instrumental in shaping the final product.

"She actually physically sat where we were recording," Bragg recalls. "She sat in between the drummer and the keyboard player and had headphones and was following the lyrics. She would make points in between takes: talk about my diction, or say things like, 'These couple of lines are probably superfluous, why don't you just leave those lines out and just do this bit here,' which neither me nor Jeff really felt we had the authority to leave lyrics out like that. She was inspirational. This project should be called Nora Guthrie presents Billy Bragg and Wilco."

It's not out of mere reverence that Bragg takes that stance. Although he admits that Mermaid Avenue is a collaborative effort all the way around, and an unconventional one at that, Bragg maintains a consistently detached demeanor when talking about the project and his role in it, acknowledging that he's just a type of a self-described "hired hand" with a clearly defined function.

"The Woody Guthrie part is pure and pristine and it's made of different stuff than my part," he says, distinguishing his contribution from the handiwork of the legend. "It's the lyric. My part is the music, so the lyric is like the rock and the music is like the water, flowing around it or whatever, if you want to use that metaphor."

Still, the similarities between Bragg and Guthrie are more than superficial. Even though Guthrie maintained that he didn't belong to any "earthly organization," he played for workers rallies and had written pieces published in Communist newspapers. Bragg was (and still is) a political activist, an unapologetic socialist and a devout enemy of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Guthrie was the man with the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" etched into his guitar. Bragg adapted the phrase and emblazoned his instrument with a similar slogan: "This Guitar Says Sorry." Yet for all the political parallels, Bragg sees a different type of connection between himself and the past in the form of Guthrie.

"This century there have been two main types of music," theorizes Bragg. "There has been commercial music, and there has been, for want of a better word, do-it-yourself music. Now whether that means punk, or people in Texas buying records and learning how to play the songs themselves, it's always been do-it-yourself music. That's perhaps the thing that me and Woody Guthrie have in common, we both come from that do-it-yourself tradition. When it's just being done for commercial terms, that's when it becomes clichéd."

Nonetheless, as Bragg takes Guthrie's music out of the studio and on to the stage, the less esoteric, more overt similarities are slowly starting to become palpable to him. Bragg wasn't picked for this project by Woody Guthrie's daughter out of sheer randomness. Perhaps Nora saw something that Bragg has been slow to accept.

"I'm only just starting to experience how much I am in these songs, because I'm beginning to play them to people and they are relating to them like they are my songs. So obviously there is a lot of me in the songs that I chose. They reflect something of me. I accept that, but I'm not yet familiar enough with it to bring it up and kick it around. I'm still doing what I've been doing for a few months, which is trying to invoke a different kind of Woody Guthrie that the people I talk to are familiar with."

And given how much material remains, a complete revision of Woody Guthrie awaits.

"There's over 1,000 lyrics there that have not been appreciated," says Bragg. "This is just the next Woody Guthrie album, there just happens to have been a break of 50 years, that's all. And there are more Woody Guthrie albums to come out. So in that sense his career isn't over, although he's dead."

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