In the documentary Man in the Sand, which chronicles the collaboration of Billy Bragg and Wilco to turn long-forgotten Woody Guthrie lyrics into actual songs, Bragg walks around Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, trying to get an idea of the people and surroundings that inspired the populist bard of American folk. Bragg wanders around deserted streets, talks to the locals, and even discovers the remains of Guthrie’s birthplace, the planks of wood tucked away in the corner of a local shop.
In one scene, Bragg chats with a woman who runs an antique shop, hoping to find any artifact that might shed some light into Guthrie’s background or any clue into his experience as an Okie before he set across the country and back, chronicling his every adventure. Eager to show Bragg some link to Guthrie, the woman pulls out a sign she displayed in front of her business, proudly proclaiming Okemah as Guthrie’s hometown.
Not surprisingly, the sign is defaced, Guthrie’s named crossed out with spray paint, the words “Commie Red, A Draft Dogger [sic]” scrawled in disgust. Though the inability of the culprits to spell a simple word is humorous, the message is nonetheless ominous: those left of center are not welcome in these parts.
That message, sadly, was how Guthrie was viewed in the state of his birth and childhood for decades after his death.
When Bragg and Wilco agreed to undertake the daunting process of selecting a handful of the over 3,000 lyrics to not only transform — but also interpret — into actual songs, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had one goal in mind. “I’d have a really good feeling about things,” he noted, “if [the project] did lead a certain number of people back to discover Woody Guthrie.”
That Tweedy had a certain amount of doubt going into the project is understandable. Wilco were only two albums into their career, so their association with the project didn’t necessarily guarantee mainstream attention. Bragg, though picked by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to head the project, was a Brit attempting to articulate what is quintessentially American. And Guthrie, at the time, was still somewhat of a left-wing obscurity, best known for the being the guy who wrote “This Land Is Your Land” and the object of obsession for a young Bob Dylan. All of that would soon change.
As was soon apparent after the release of Mermaid Avenue in 1998, that unlikely combination of Guthrie, Bragg, and Wilco proved to be both a stroke of genius and good fortune. Guthrie, it turned out, was a much more complex person than the caricature he had been shaped into through the ages. Yes, he was the ranting, rambling, rousing hobo who railed against greed and injustice. But he was also an astute observer of culture, an idealistic dreamer, a naive romantic, a doting father, and a philosophical thinker.
Bragg and Wilco, then, brought the perfect skill sets to Mermaid Avenue. Bragg, firmly rooted in the protest folk tradition, could anchor the project while Wilco, placed between the comprehensive Americana of Being There and the lush orchestral sweep of Summerteeth, could put Guthrie’s lyrics in diverse musical contexts. That approach achieved the desired goal of revealing Guthrie’s lyrical scope to be much broader and deeper than previously thought. It also made for some classic songs.
Now, almost fourteen years after the initial release of Mermaid Avenue, Nonesuch is re-releasing Volumes I and II as part of a set that includes a third volume of previously-unreleased songs and Man in the Sand. The release corresponds with the centennial anniversary of Guthrie’s birth and an ever-growing interest in a man whose legacy continues to spread far beyond music.
Most fans of Bragg, Wilco, and Guthrie are intimately familiar with Volumes I and II, and for good reason. “California Stars”, “One By One”, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, “Remember the Mountain Bed”, “Airline to Heaven” — the gems poured out of the first two albums, illustrating that Guthrie had been unfairly pigeonholed and stereotyped in the decades since his death. Here was proof that in addition to writing protest songs, he also wrote love ballads. In addition to writing in the Okie vernacular, he also wrote bona fide poems worthy of being anthologized. In addition to being a rebel, he was also a devoutly spiritual and patriotic person.
With Volumes I and II having achieved so much, it would be reasonable to assume that Volume III might be mere filler. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Sure, there are songs that were left off Volumes I and II for good reason (“Be Kind to the Boy on the Road”, for example, features some horrific falsetto), but there are also some tracks that deserve to become standards at Bragg and Wilco shows.
Most of the highlights on Volume III come courtesy of Wilco, mainly because their tracks are more musically diverse. “That Lonesome Wind That Blows” is instantly familiar, showcasing what has remained the band’s strengths through its numerous incarnations: Tweedy’s Everyman voice, an undeniable melody, a sturdy chord progression, and instrumental flourishes that serve the song rather than the player.
“The Jolly Banker” is also notable for several reasons. Foremost, it is classic Guthrie, showcasing his ability to create archetypal characters that lend meaning and resonance to his songs. But then there’s the fact that the song credits list the current incarnation of Wilco, not the Jay Bennett-era version of the band. Nels Cline handles lap steel duties while guest Feist play a garden tool (yes, garden tool).
And then there’s “When the Roses Bloom Again”, one of the best tracks to come out of the entire project. The song tells the story of a soldier who leaves his love behind to fight in war. Before he leaves, though, he tells her where she can find his gravesite should he die and promises to be with her once again when the roses bloom from the ground his body nourishes.
Tweedy delivers the tale in his cigarette-scarred croon over swelling walls of organs, the song building until its romantic, eerie climax. It’s a classic, no doubt, but was left off Volumes I and II once it was discovered that the song was not actually written by Guthrie. “When the Roses Bloom Again” eventually found its way onto the Chelsea Walls soundtrack, but is included here because it was a product of this project, regardless of author.
Bragg also provides some solid songs, often taking a more spare approach that underscores Guthrie’s grounding in the folk tradition. “Go Down to the Water”, for example, features only a banjo and violin, Bragg transforming Guthrie’s tale of loss into a haunting Celtic dirge. He takes a similar approach on “Union Prayer”, this time with a voila added to the mix. Though the results sound much different than Guthrie’s own music, the songs put him in a broader musical context, showing the roots of American folk music that lie across the Atlantic.
In retrospect, the Mermaid Avenue sessions also serve as a revealing glimpse into the evolution of Wilco, capturing the band reveling in their alt-country influences while they simultaneously shunned them during the making of Summerteeth. After Being There, Wilco would never again make an album that could easily be misconstrued as alt-country — a tag the band has always disliked and struggled against — making the Mermaid Avenue albums the last testament of the band before their music took a dramatic experimental turn.
Indeed, the Mermaid Avenue project had — and continues to have — more of a cultural impact than anyone could have guessed. Oklahoma, for example, has finally come to embrace its native son, celebrating his life and music each year at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, an event that draws thousands of fans from all over the world to Okemah. A painting of Guthrie now hangs in the state capitol, something unthinkable back in 1998.
Just last month, the Brady Theater in Tulsa hosted a centennial tribute to Guthrie, bringing together musical acts as diverse as Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips to Del McCoury to Jackson Browne to Hanson to Roseanne Cash to Guthrie’s son, Arlo. Soon, the city will also open The Woody Guthrie Center, an archive that will house the singer’s notebooks, paintings, drawings, letters, cartoons, and unpublished writings — including short stories, essays, and novels.
It will also, at long last, welcome America’s greatest folksinger back to his home state once and for all.
Is it fair to say that all of these things happened because of Mermaid Avenue? Probably not. There’s no doubt, though, that the Mermaid Avenue albums played a major role in sparking a revival of interest in Woody Guthrie — both in his home state, his country, and the world at large. And that renewed interest has finally allowed people to see Guthrie for who and what he truly was and continues to represent.
In that regard, Billy Bragg and Wilco can rest assured. They didn’t just lead untold scores of people back to Woody Guthrie. They also helped lead Woody Guthrie back home.