Music by Woodie Guthrie 50 years later
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me, says this folksong about murdered IWW organizer Joe Hill. And so it is with Woody Guthrie. With the release of Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco, a fifteen song album of unpublished Guthrie lyrics, it’s clear that, in the words of Bragg Woody Guthrie has not spoken his last words to us…this is just his first record for fifty years.
And that’s exactly how Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, wanted it. But she also wanted the album to feel like a collaboration- one between herself, Bragg, and, of course, her father. Woody was really open to other musicians, she says. And it was important to work with a musician who was like that. I didn’t want to just hand over this stuff and say, OK, go make a record; I’ll see you in a year. Mermaid Avenue (named for the street where the Guthrie family lived on Coney Island) does seem like a collaboration, one between two musicians who were in it not just for the music, but for the politics as well. For anyone familiar with Billy Bragg’s music, his socialist sensibility is always evident in his lyrics; and we all know who wrote This Land Is Your Land. The cuts on Mermaid Avenue show us a more complicated man than just a social commentator. However, we see that Guthrie had written plenty of songs that expressed his radical ideals and vision.
Woody definitely was a visionary. As, She Came Along To Me proclaims But I’m sure the women are equal, and they may be ahead of the men. As Bragg commented when I saw him play last month at the Fleadh The fact that Woody managed to write a song about women’s liberation in 1944, that’s just amazing. Yes, it is. I Guess I planted, an extremely well done pro-union song, while not exactly visionary, certainly speaks to his ideals and hopes for the world, the proletariat in particular.
This Woody Guthrie album is excellent, and there are many more to come. Not only does the Billy Bragg and Wilco ensemble have enough tracks cut for another album, but Nora has some 2,500 lyrics left in her father’s archive. And she intends to put them to good use. She has collaborations planned with The Klezmatics, an avant garde klezmer band from New York who will create music for Woody’s lyrics on Jewish themes, and Ani DiFranco, who is certainly an artist who carries on the Guthrie singer-songwriter tradition. Nora Guthrie is just as brilliant at choosing artists who can do justice to interpreting her father’s lyrics for a new generation as Woody was at writing them in the first place.