Looking back on a sonic monument to legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie
The end of the millennium was a strange time for an English progressive folkie, an alt-country band and a legendary U.S. progressive folkie who had been dead for 30 years, all drawn together by a determined writer / archivist / producer.
Billy Bragg had made a name for himself as a solo act, literally with just him and his guitar in the ’80s, bringing Brit folk back to a political realm. But by the ’90s, despite boosting from R.E.M. and others, his career faced a slow down as he couldn’t quite manage a more pop sound. Wilco emerged from the ashes of the legendary Uncle Tupelo but by their second LP, 1996’s Being There, Jeff Tweedy was already trying to fight off their alt-country yoke, starting the album off with a nod to Pere Ubu co-founder Peter Laughner and blaring horns and starting to gain recognition and respect as a result. Woody Guthrie had spawned many followers (including a Midwest troubadour named Dylan) and had by the ’90’s seen a revival thanks to a series of reissues on Smithsonian Folkways and a purposeful family member. But as it turns out, this was only the beginning.
Nora Guthrie was Woody’s youngest of eight children and definitely no slouch. After starting out as a dancer, she threw herself into chronicling her dad’s work. In 1992 alone, she founded the Woody Guthrie Archives and became president of Woody Guthrie Publications (which she still is) and president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, remaining as such until 2015. By 1997, she was already responsible for projects around Woody including a songbook, CD, animated video and a glorious 1996 series for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which included a symposium and concerts with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, Alejandro Escovedo, her sibling Arlo Guthrie and Ani DiFranco, who would produce and put out the concert highlights as ‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em on her Righteous Babe imprint.
Also participating in the shows was that English folkie. No doubt inspired by the shows, Nora had another brainstorm in her quest to keep Woody’s work alive. Though he was racked by Huntington’s Disease towards the end of his life (he died in 1967), Woody would keep writing, accumulating over 1000 lyrics from 1947 on, all of which remained in search of music. Nora’s notion was to have Bragg finish the job and present the work as an updated, revitalized take on her dad’s work (supposedly, years earlier, the same idea had been pitched to Dylan but nothing came of it). Bragg was intrigued by the idea but he had concerns- he didn’t want to have the material to come out as just a copy of Woody’s minimal folkie style, of which he was nevertheless enamored. When Bragg approached Wilco about joining him on this Guthrie venture, Tweedy supposedly wasn’t totally on board but thankfully, one of his bandmates was.
A former math teacher and electronics technician, Jay Bennett could and would play any instrument he could get his hands on and proved vital to Wilco, helping the band make its distinctive mark. Bennett was excited by Bragg’s offer and eventually got the band on board for the unusual project where, as we’ll see, he played a vital role, not only co-writing roughly half the album but also adding in all sorts of unique musical parts (including guitar, saw, B3 organ, Leslie pedals, Farfisa organ, mandolin, piano, electric sitar, banjo, harmonica, drums, upright bass, ‘Delayaphone,’ bells and more). Nora, who often called herself a “Shadchan” (Yiddish for ‘matchmaker’), was the executive producer for album and its mostly unheralded hero.
The end result could have easily been an overly reverential, gloomy bore. But thankfully, 1998’s Mermaid Avenue (named after a Woody song and the street he lived on in Coney Island) is loose-limbed and surprising. Woody had been mostly thought of as a fiercely liberal folkie who brandished a guitar with a slogan ‘this machine kills fascists’ and akin to a literary/movie hero of his–Tom Joad, John Steinbeck’s fearless Oakie immortalized by Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. But the portrait of him that emerges from this album is a much more multi-faceted and complex one than even most music fans would figure him for. There’s fun, silliness, heartbreak and nods to a poet, an actress and a composer. Thanks to Billy and the boys, there’s also some lively and sweeping music to go along with it, plus with a special guest tucked in there.
“Walt Whitman’s Niece” kicks things off, with a wonderful, sly, rowdy call-and-response and shout-a-long led by Bragg, later with a brief recital about the title character. What follows might be the triumph of the entire record, with all due respect to Calexico, Tweedy/Bennett’s “California Stars” might be the most beautiful atmospheric roots rock song ever recorded. Not surprisingly, it’s the most played song on the album on Spotify, sitting at almost 60 million and way ahead of the rest of the album, kicking the record off with a formidable one-two punch.
But then the record takes some intriguing turns that actually pay off. Bragg returns for “Way Over Young in the Minor Key,” a sweet aching song, which he describes in the notes as including “visions of his [Woody’s] own Oklahoma childhood.” But wait a minute… ‘Sweet’ isn’t something we normally associate with Woody and who is that lovely voice harmonizing with Bragg, uplifting the song? It’s none other than Natalie Merchant, who had only gone solo from 10,000 Maniacs a few years before and who takes over the next song, the poetic, nature-themed “Birds and Ships” herself. Right after that, we’re treated to yet another nice surprise. Like “Car Car,” “Hoodoo Voodoo” is in the tradition of Woody’s great funny tunes, yet another side that he’s not given enough credit for. But the music fashioned to it is… a go-go ’60’s sound courtesy of Wilco and yet another guest, bluesman Corey Harris? No, it shouldn’t work, but what makes it a triumph is that it does. It’s a groove-shaking good time and yet another way the album stretches our comprehension of the great songwriter. But hold on for another surprise… “She Came Along To Me” is anti-fascist, which you’d expect from Woody, and also feminist, which you might not, all wrapped up in a an easy-rolling rock vibe by Bragg and movingly framed by Bennett’s slide guitar.
From there, things get more low-key briefly with the lovely majestic “At My Window Sad and Lonely,” which you could almost imagine Roger McGuinn singing otherwise, as Tweedy pines for a distant love here. Bragg returns to sweetly, gently toast “Ingrid Bergman,” alone on acoustic guitar and throwing in some stromboli.
But then, we’re back to WTF land with an unironic song about the Son of God that doesn’t profess religion. “Christ For President” has a jolly gospel revivalist tone (the only thing really non-secular about the song) and posits the Messiah as a anti-greed, anti-war revolutionary and not the gun-toting figure that’s used to promote hate by some modern day Christians. If you’re pissed about that, get a Ouija board and have it out with Woody. Bragg’s bluesy sing-a-long “I Guess I Planted” keeps the lefty stance going here with a pro-union message and another shout-a-long chorus, powered by Bennett’s church-like organ.
The final third of the album is somewhat downcast musically but not dreary thankfully. “One By One” is a sweet, sad country-ish ballad, flavored by steel guitar from Bob Egan (who was just leaving Wilco). The heartbroken love letter here (much like Woody’s original “Mermaid Avenue”) sounds like someone who’s feeling their age and the tune sounds like it was made to order for Tweedy. “Eisler On The Go” was written to grieve about the deportation of the famous composer during the ’50’s ‘Red Scare’ and here has Bragg heard mostly solo with some gentle, elegant backing otherwise. By contrast, “Hesitating Beauty” is a bouncy jamboree though Tweedy sounds laidback as he longs for a love and what their future might be. Again, it’s not something readily associated with ol’ Woody, but that’s part of what keeps thing interesting and fascinating here. And though Bragg came up with the music, “Another Man’s Done Gone” is also sung by Tweedy, who sounds sad and lost though earnest, done as a brief piano ballad with the aura of a yearning song from The Band. Ending things off is the mournful “The Unwelcome Guest” with Bragg and Tweedy harmonizing over Egan’s twangy steel about an outlaw regretting his life on the run, and notable for being one of the few songs here that would more easily be associated with Woody by most people.
VIDEO: Wilco perform “California Stars” at Farm Aid 1998
Mermaid Avenue proved such a boost to all involved that there was an encore–Mermaid Avenue Vol. II in 2000–plus a moving documentary about the original album (Man in the Sand) and a collection that included a Volume III of outtakes plus the other two albums and the film (2012’s Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions). The original album is also one of the finest pieces of music that Bragg and Wilco were involved with. Wilco would go on to greater commercial heights and even farther away from their alt-country roots, though Bennett would be booted out in 2001 after locking horns with Tweedy (see the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart for details) and going solo until his death in 2009. Bragg had quite a varied career afterwards too, writing books, curating stages at Glastonbury, doing Spotify shows, winning awards, collaborating with Joe Henry and even meeting up with Her Majesty.
Nora would team up with the Klezmatics for another Woody lyric project, 2006’s Wonder Wheel and numerous other Woody-related projects, two of which I was fortunate enough to see. In November 2015, she spoke at the Museum of the City of New York about her My Name is New York book/CD. She detailed some of Woody’s favorite Gotham haunts and revealing some little-known facts about her dad, including how he penned some lyrics in Yiddish and that his ashes were scattered on Coney Island beach at the breakers there, providing another connection to Mermaid Avenue for him.
In the spring of 2022, the Morgan Museum hosted an exhibit that she organized (“Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song”), again highlighting some lesser-known parts of her dad’s life, including his time in the Merchant Marines and the Army and as well as his drawings/art and numerous photos of him as a family man.
In 2019, the annual extravagant, elaborate Mermaid Parade in Coney Island (the last one before COVID) featured Nora and Woody as king and queen of the festival, riding up the route where they grew up with their dad. I wondered if many of the young revelers at the splashy affair knew who they were or who Woody was or that any of them spent their formative years there.
Later on the boardwalk, I ran into the pair, asked for a photo with them and they yelled at me about how busy they were. “Screw them,” I thought then, but now I think “screw it,” they earned their attitude. Arlo made an impressive career for himself and was the first concert I ever saw (Tanglewood, ’77). And Nora’s work should earn her a Medal of Freedom someday, swagger and all.