An album by Billy Bragg and Wilco, from 1998.

The lyrics are all by Woody Guthrie. The way it came about was that during the last years of Guthrie's life, he wrote a couple thousand songs which he didn't record. When he died in 1967, the music was lost, but the lyrics remained. In 1995, his daughter contacted Billy Bragg with an eye to Bragg finishing some of the songs and recording them; Bragg agreed, and recruited Wilco to help. This was good thinking all around: Bragg for the working class socialist politics (though most of the chosen songs are either apolitical or vaguely populist), and Wilco for the Americana and whatnot. They both have a great natural sympathy for Guthrie's lyrics and they play well together. They work wonders.

If you take a random sampling of fifteen songs out of a thousand or more, you can't really go and draw too many conclusions about What Guthrie Was All About at that point in his life. One of the things he was, at any rate, was a fine rock'n'roll lyricist: He wants to tell us about real human beings, and he does it with clear, concrete images. He writes about things that hurt and things that matter: Heartache, love, death, sex, and so on. He does it in plain common language used uncommonly well. "Ingrid Bergman" is a bit goofy, but otherwise there's very little vague, meaningless, "poetic" bullshit here.

It's one of the best and most consistent rock and roll records that's been made in recent years. For 90% of the record, I simply can't imagine how what they're doing could be done any better. Wilco was a lot rootsier and more direct back then, and Bragg is Bragg: When he's got somebody around to keep him rootsy and direct, he's incomparable. Bragg's and Jeff Tweedy's voices sound horrible together, but they only make that mistake on one song, and that one song ("The Unwelcome Guest]") is good enough to survive the experience. Other than that, it works like a charm, song after song. Er, wait. There's another flaw here: They let Natalie Merchant spoil a couple of songs, too. What a shame. I guess if she doesn't annoy you, it's not a problem. On one of those two songs, she's only in the background.

Track listing:

  1. Walt Whitman's Niece
  2. California Stars
  3. Way over Yonder in the Minor Key
  4. Birds and Ships
  5. Hoodoo Voodoo
  6. She Came along to Me
  7. At My Window Sad and Lonely
  8. Ingrid Bergman
  9. Christ for President
  10. I Guess I Planted
  11. One by One
  12. Eisler on the Go
  13. Hesitating Beauty
  14. Another Man's Done Gone
  15. The Unwelcome Guest

There's a Mermaid Avenue Volume II out now, which is composed of outtakes from this one. There are two or three good songs. The remainder of it is disposable.
Mermaid Avenue is named after the street on Coney Island in New York City where Woody Guthrie spent the best years of his life. His wife, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, taught dance lessons during the day and he stayed home to take care of his daughter Cathy, on whom he doted and for whom he wrote numerous tunes; many of the songs from this period (late 1940s) are children's songs, written in a child's vernacular and rhythm:
I lost my head
Pick it up pick it up
And put it back on my shoulders.
Guthrie wrote lyrics at a typewriter, but kept a guitar handy to work out the melodies (many of which he lifted; words were more important). This is probably the most prolific period in his life. It is punctuated by Cathy's death by fire and shortly thereafter by the birth of Arlo Guthrie.
Woody died of Huntington's disease, a genetic illness that attacks the entire nervous system to the point that basic mental and physical functions are impossible. (This meant playing guitar and singing were way out of the realm of possibility during the last years of his life.)
When the disease first manifest itself (in the form of frightening and erratic behavior, like setting himself on fire), Guthrie was misdiagnosed and placed in a psychiatric hospital. Pete Seeger told a writer once that when he visited Woody, the doctor said, "This guy's crazy. He says he's written a thousand songs."
Seeger said, "Because he has written a thousand songs."
Guthrie's voice was not as pretty as Billy Bragg's or Jeff Tweedy's or Natalie Merchant's, but that is hardly the point.
"If you're looking for hope in this world," Bob Dylan wrote, "You can go to the church of your choice or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital. You'll find God in the church of your choice; you'll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital."
And his ashes, by the way, were thrown into the ocean just blocks from the Mermaid Avenue house.

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