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.