Billy Bragg and Wilco

at Guinness Fleadh, Arlington International Racecourse, June 20

By Kevin McKeough

For all Woody Guthrie’s standing as a poet laureate of the American spirit, I doubt that the words to “This Land Is Your Land” would have found their way into any English class without the music. And without those words that simple, six-note melody would have faded from our cultural memory years ago, along with thousands of other folk tunes. But the sense of breadth and possibility the two generate together has gotten the song taught to generations of schoolkids, even if they’re never taught the verses about the No Trespassing sign (“But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing / That side was made for you and me”) or the relief office (“As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, / Is this land made for you and me?”). Listen to Guthrie’s records and you’ll hear lots of stories about Depression-era poverty, fascist creeps, unions, and rebels. You’ll also hear him whooping, laughing, yodeling, and joking. You’ll hear the clickety-clack of the freight trains he rode beneath nearly every song, and you’ll hear plain melodies that drive home his words with unerring directness.

Guthrie left no musical notation to accompany his thousands of unrecorded lyrics when he died in 1967 from Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative nerve disease that had been sapping his strength since the early 1950s. In 1995 his daughter Nora, manager of the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York (which opened this year), asked English folk rocker Billy Bragg to set some of those orphaned lyrics to music. Bragg in turn enlisted Wilco, and their collaboration, Mermaid Avenue, was released this week on Elektra. In interviews Bragg has portrayed Mermaid Avenue (the title refers to the Coney Island street on which the Guthries lived after World War II) as a revisionist effort that reveals Guthrie as a multifaceted person rather than a proletarian folk icon, and the lust, longing, and introspection of the lyrics certainly are a departure from much of his recorded work.

Unfortunately little of the music on Mermaid Avenue does justice to Guthrie’s lyrics. There are notable exceptions, and a couple of gripping songs provided high points for both acts when they appeared at the Guinness Fleadh last weekend. During their early afternoon set Wilco performed “Christ for President,” which envisions the carpenter as a populist hero clearing the nation of money-changing fat cats. With the band loping and twanging behind him, singer Jeff Tweedy brayed drawn-out, gospel-tinged lines that focused attention on each syllable (“Every year, we waste enough / to feeeed the ooones who staaarve”). A few hours later Wilco joined Bragg and his band for “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” in which Guthrie accompanies a seaman friend (“but I can’t tell you which seaman”) to a cathouse (“I won’t say which building”), meets a pair of hookers (“leaving out the names of those two girls”), and spends the night listening to one of them read poetry (“not to say which book of poems”). With the lurching, juke-joint arrangement; the carousing, call-and-response verses; and the added bonus of pianist Ian McLagen’s boogie-woogie sprinkles, you’d think that Woody had screwed his way across Brooklyn.

Oddly enough, when Guthrie addresses his sexuality head-on, Bragg’s bawdiness deserts him. His lullaby melodies, tender singing, and delicate acoustic arrangements make “Ingrid Bergman” and “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” sound downright chaste. Guthrie, meanwhile, equates his erection with an island volcano (“This old mountain it’s been waiting…for your hands to touch its hardrock” he tells Bergman) and recounts his success at seducing women with song. Even Bragg seems to realize he goofed: at the Fleadh he reworked “Minor Key” as stampeding honky-tonk, belting out “Ain’t nobody that can sing like me” as the cocky declaration it was meant to be.

For all the talk of presenting a Woody Guthrie that dispels his myth, much of Mermaid Avenue suffers from excessive reverence. Maybe all that time handling archival documents explains why Bragg and Wilco treat Guthrie like a ghost, giving so many of his lyrics dreamy melodies, shimmering arrangements, and subdued tempos. Despite its playful language and blues form, Bragg turns “Eisler on the Go” into an acoustic lament, and Wilco’s mix of lulling keyboards and forlorn vocals on “At My Window Sad and Lonely” floats along aimlessly. When they do get frisky the Wilco boys are as engaging as ever. At the Fleadh “Hoodoo Voodoo,” one of Guthrie’s silly children’s songs, proved to be equally effective as silly garage rock, full of carnival organ swirls, clattering percussion, and Tweedy’s stray-cat howl. Bragg can also be a gleeful songwriter at times, but Guthrie’s explicitly political lyrics bring out his ponderous side: “I Guess I Planted” demonstrates how, when combining slogans and soccer anthems, Bragg is no Chumbawumba.

Despite Bragg and Wilco’s honorable intentions, the music on Mermaid Avenue often fails Guthrie’s words; the immediacy of his music gets lost as they try to adapt his lyrics to their sensibilities, or vice versa. Perhaps there’s a better way for people to rediscover Woody Guthrie. Why not free his lyrics from the museum shelves and launch them into cyberspace? Then everyone–folkies, rappers, punks, headbangers–can see whether Guthrie’s words resonate in their lives and come up with their own music. What better way to celebrate and spread Woody’s legacy than to declare once and for all that his songs were made for you and me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Billy Bragg/ Wilco photos by Dan Silverman.