PRINT October 1998


Woody Guthrie with Bill Bragg and Wilco

NEITHER A TRIBUTE ALBUM nor a collaboration, Mermaid Avenue is one of those peculiar contemporary hybrids: music and performance by Billy Bragg and the rock band Wilco, words by the late Woody Guthrie, the great agitprop singer-songwriter whose influence on the folk revival generation of the late ’50s and early ’60s gives him a paternity claim on later rock. When Guthrie died, in 1967, he left a trove of half-songs—written lyrics without the melodies to go with them. The papers languished in boxes until Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked Bragg, a British musician whose consistently, nay constantly expressed politics make him a logical Guthrie sympathizer, to be her father’s cowriter. Bragg found Wilco, and the result is the widely praised Mermaid Avenue.

Not so long ago, I doubt that a posthumous collaboration with a writer not around to agree to it would have passed with only approving comment, particularly in the purist land of folkiedom. It is, of course, kinda postmodern, a low-tech, play-your-own-instruments version of quotation and appropriation, like rap in reverse (rappers being fiercely proud of writing their own opinin’ rhymes while happily channeling beats and bytes of tune). Beneath the folk-rock veracity here is slippery footing, like underwater moss. And, as usual, commerce has as much to gain as art does from conceptual liberty: Mermaid Avenue is not just the next Bragg or Wilco album but a publicity-unleashing novelty, and, for the Guthrie heirs, a way to stretch the estate. So he wrote down the lyrics but left out the music? Hey, no problem.

But for heaven’s sake—why begrudge them? It’s not like these people have no track record. And Mermaid Avenue is a pretty nice album.

Bragg has properly pointed out that Guthrie was a renegade, a man of the people but not a sanctified one. (It’s widely forgotten that he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” not as a schoolchild hymn but as a dark parody of Irving Berlin.) Scathingly argumentative, a womanizer, a chronic saboteur of his own career, Guthrie was a guy who in the middle of an evening at home could head for the door with the words, OK, I’m off. Where are you going, his wife asked? California, he replied, and was gone three months. Not an endearing trait in a family man (and Guthrie’s children eventually numbered eight), but very ur–rock ‘n’ roll. And it is the ur–rock ‘n’ roller more than the Dust Bowl tragedian who is honored on Mermaid Avenue.

Guthrie was the kind of reflexive writer who copes with whatever is on his mind by putting it on paper. His weaker language has that forced archaism that was once considered poetical (I mean, who actually says “ofttimes”?), but the best lyrics chosen by Bragg and the Wilco members are conversational or stream-of-consciousness. “Hoodoo Voodoo” I would guess Guthrie conceived as one of his many songs for children, but like the best kids’ stuff, it works adultly; a kind of list of activities and things a child might do or notice in a day (stale cheese, “slicky slacky fishy tails”—housekeeping problems, Woody?), it translates observation into a euphoric absurdism that’s not too far off from rock’s best trips into nonsense. (The phrase about the diaper on the clothesline, meanwhile, evokes a roundness of human experience that reveals a lack in most of the rock ‘n’ roll Guthrie could have known.) Several numbers are songs of love or lust, subjects Guthrie can handle; his humor makes his lechery entertaining, and even in his more romantic moments his taste for the mundane detail gives his longings precision. The best song in this vein, “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” is a storytelling tour de force, exactly because everything Guthrie tells us he takes back: “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night,” he met two girls, “leaving out the names of those two girls,” in one of whose laps, but he can’t disclose which lap . . . and so on. Someone somewhere is pondering a thesis on Guthriean narrativity.

Bragg and Wilco (principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy, often assisted by Jay Bennett) provide music that is often fine and never less than appropriate. They also disseminate a fuller picture of Guthrie than the one most of us know, showing him not as stuck in the days of Communist fellow travelers but as a man of enduring currency and in fact ahead of his time. However Guthrie treated his wives and girlfriends, as early as 1942, he could also write, “I’m sure the women are equal and they may be ahead of the men.” Even back then, a guy with his eyes open knew.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.