Meet Me on Mermaid Avenue 
Punk folkie Billy Bragg gets together with music legend Woody Guthrie
By Kimberly Chun

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


How do you communicate with the dead? Well, a little imagination and a sheaf of lyrics help. When the very-much-alive British punk-folkie Billy Bragg took on the task of collaborating with the long-deceased "dust bowl troubadour" Woody Guthrie, it took more than just a séance. It required the forgotten, yet inspired, scribblings of the folk icon himself.

The project was last year's critically acclaimed Mermaid Avenue and this year's Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, in which Bragg and his "house band" Wilco set previously unpublished Guthrie lyrics to music, turning them into songs that would honor the American music legend. A daunting task—Bragg also had to rely on his formidable creative powers in order not to worry about what Guthrie and his countless spiritual and musical offspring would think. "As far as I was concerned, the agreement I got from Nora [Guthrie, Woody's youngest daughter] was to collaborate with Woody Guthrie, not to imitate him," Bragg says. "So Woody was kind of faxing the lyrics to me, from his hotel beside Lake Tahoe or something like that.

"It was like Howard Hughes: I never met him, and his agent was Nora Guthrie—like The Usual Suspects—all you meet is the lawyer," the 42-year-old singer-songwriter continues, laughing, on a born raconteur's roll, accelerating as the conceit inspires further imaginings.

These types of flights of fancy are common in a conversation with the London native. He's a natural storyteller, getting into the groove of an idea and then playing it out to the end, savoring the sometimes-great notion. "I never met Woody," he muses. Woody has left the building, and y'know, I thought of him like that."

Bragg has had a lot of time to think about his own real-life version of Melvin and Howard. It began in 1992 when Bragg first met Nora Guthrie on a beautiful July day at a free concert celebrating Woody's 80th birthday in New York City's Central Park. Between appearances by Jesse Jackson and Nanci Griffith, Bragg clambered up on stage to play the Guthrie song he knew best, "Pretty Boy Floyd."

Six years later, Mermaid Avenue captured a Grammy nomination with its startlingly powerful collection of songs. Vol. II goes uptown with an even more modern, urban take on life. From the cover snapshot taken by Guthrie of a cat in front of his Mermaid Avenue, New York home to songs about baseball heroes ("Joe DiMaggio Done It Again"), political candidates ("Stetson Kennedy") and jet travel ("Airline to Heaven"), the second volume brims with the multitudinous emotions and imagery of contemporary life. In "Hot Rod Hotel," Bragg sings from the viewpoint of a hotel porter surveying the remains of a wild party, complete with "condom rubbers on the windows, walls and doors." "My Flying Saucer," written during the first UFO flap in the late '40s, gets a Buddy Holly-style musical makeover. And "All You Fascists" still seems relevant, decades after its 1942 origins, as Bragg shouts like his heroes, the Clash: "People of every color marching side by side/Marching 'cross these fields where a million fascists died."

"Before I began this project, obviously I knew who Woody Guthrie was and why he was important because I had been a Bob Dylan fan when I first started out," Bragg recalls in his thick Cockney drawl, on the phone from his UK home. There's a "little crackling somewhere over Greenland" on his side of the line, he complains, but his own message is coming through plainly. "I think of myself as part of the tradition of which Woody Guthrie is the founding father, and it includes me and the Clash and Dylan, y'know—it's a long line. But I never read his biography by Joe Klein [Woody Guthrie: A Life, 1980], and I hadn't heard all of his records. It wasn't until after I had written most of the songs that I read the biography, because I didn't want too much of Woody, the legend, to interfere with the voice I was hearing from the Archive.

"I was working with the guy in the Archive—he was speaking to me, clearly," Bragg continues. "Talking to me about how much he wanted to have sex with Ingrid Bergman. Talking to me hitching a ride on a flying saucer. Talking to me about Joe DiMaggio. I wanted to talk to that guy."

How well would Woody and Billy have gotten along? The Brit reared on punk rock and the hillbilly who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" had more than leftist politics in common. A champion of the working class who has rallied the troops at strikes and benefits and helped establish the Red Wedge socialist musicians' collective, Bragg is as likely to discuss his favorite hometown soccer team as the power of unions. Now he swings easily between his lack of finesse, and interest, in the studio ("I prefer just to take my money and throw it in the sea rather than have a studio. All the friends I know that have studios continue to have a bit of a money pit.") and his affection for Italy, his great-grandfather's homeland ("If I had to run away to another country, it would probably be Italy, somewhere between Florence and Bologna, in the mountains there.").

In a similar sense, there were multiple dimensions to Guthrie. "Y'know there's two Woody Guthries: There's the Woody Guthrie that's in Grapes of Wrath, the movie, in black and white," says Bragg. "But there's another Woody Guthrie who lived in New York City in the 1940s, and HE is in On the Town—that movie with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and they're sailors and they're in New York and they have a 24-hour pass and they're chasing women. It's in color and it's in the world that those of us born in the late 20th Century would recognize. That movie ends in Coney Island in 1949—that's where Woody was living. He lived half his life in New York City, and that aspect of Woody is very well-reflected on volume two."

It is easy to imagine Guthrie—who died in 1967 at the age of 55 after suffering from Huntington's disease—relating to the atmosphere at a Bragg performance. After all, the Okemah, Oklahoma native was primarily a performing, rather than recording, artist during his day. Imagine Guthrie idly flipping through CDs, intently listening in a crowd crammed with modish, young indie-rock fans, aging hippies and denim-clad labor union members, at a free Bragg acoustic set promoting the first Mermaid Avenue in a Haight Street record store two years ago. With graying temples and clad in a gray T-shirt, Bragg joked about the Clinton sex scandal and other news events, sang a haunting version of "Black Wind Blowing" and slammed the GOP, to much applause, when he played the unreleased Guthrie/Bragg/Wilco song, "Black Bear Went Up the Mountain," which equates the Republican Party with a turd shot from a bear's behind.

Then picture Guthrie in the audience a few months later in San Francisco, as Bragg, ever the socialist with a wicked sense of humor (think Mark Russell with Marxist ideals AND songwriting ability), headlined a benefit for the local longshoremen's union with his band, the Blokes, which includes former Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan and ex-Damned and Shriekback guitarist Lu Edmonds. Hardcore union members laid down their cash for the legal expenses of Robert Irminger, a local labor leader who was sued by the Pacific Maritime Association after boycotting a cargo from Liverpool, the location of a lengthy dock workers' strike, in 1997. In return, they got to hear electric versions of Guthrie songs from both Mermaid albums, such as "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," Bragg songs like "A New England" and the socialist anthem "The Internationale," as well as Bragg's characteristic, entertaining stage patter: "If the president of the United States of America, Yeah, it's easy to see Billy and Woody bonding over music, politics and a mutual love of life.

And both of them found their way to Mermaid Avenue with the help of one of the street's former residents, Nora Guthrie. She first came across her father's 40- to 50-year-old lyrics eight years ago while preparing to start the Archive and going through the boxes of writings that her mother had saved. She'd pin a lyric—one of thousands with no notated music—that she liked up on the wall and wish there was a tune that would allow it be heard, allow it to sing. She just had to find the right person, someone with the upstart, rabble-rousing spirit of her father.

"Someone had to do it first. And Billy did it first and he was very, very brave, because this could have been a disaster! I know everyone I know was praying that they liked it, because it could have ruined us all," Nora Guthrie says with a hearty chuckle. She has the earthy accent of a native New Yorker and sprinkles her speech with phrases such as "Ba-da-bing-ba-da-boom." "The first person to do that has the most balls if you ask me. Billy could have got CREAMED. Here he is, an outsider, he doesn't even live in the country, he's got a funny accent, he doesn't live in Oklahoma, he was so courageous to do all this, and that's Billy's spirit. That refers to his punk rock roots, where you take a lot of chances."

She explained her idea to Bragg and sent him some copies of the lyrics. When he read them and realized how powerful they were, Bragg decided to visit her at the Archive, which she co-directs with her father's manager Harold Leventhal, and pore through Woody's words.

A deal was struck: Nora Guthrie could pick the title of the project, which was named after the street her family lived on and the address stamped on many lyrics at the Archive. But Bragg had to have the freedom to work on the sound and pick the musicians he played with. He was afraid of it sounding too much like a tribute album, which can sometimes be more of an ego trip for the recording artist than a complementary setting for the songs.

So Bragg decided to look for a "house band" that could give the songs a continuity of feel. Wilco was his first choice. "I knew Jeff Tweedy [Wilco vocalist, songwriter and guitarist] from when he was in Uncle Tupelo," says Bragg. "I knew he was a music fan, and he would realize how unique this project was, after I overcome his skepticism about the fact that this archive existed." True to his egalitarian beliefs, Bragg eventually urged Wilco to go the Archives and pick out lyrics to put to their own music—he didn't want the album to sound like a solo effort. Wilco lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett co-wrote some of the band's contributions, and he admits that the group thought of themselves as simply a house band at first—until they went to the Archives.

"The first time we went there we just had an afternoon, and you just start poring through the lyrics," says Bennett in Chicago. "You would like to be able to read every single lyric all the way through, and there's a temptation to do that because you're just so overwhelmed and enthralled and intrigued that you wish you could spend a week there reading. You pick things out and get them home and see if it still touches you. Then you kind of start to own it to a certain extent, and the music flows."

As for Bragg, it wasn't hard to come up with music to lyrics with such sturdily constructed imagery and irresistible internal rhythm. "The best way I can explain it is that it's down to feel. You kind of feel a tune. You look at the lyrics. The lyrics, because of the way that they are printed, have an internal rhythm of their own, which give you some suggestions as to where the lines break," he says.

In the fall of 1997, Bragg and Wilco recorded a slew of demos in Chicago. Then Bragg and the band moved to Dublin in the winter of '98 to record, mostly live, at Totally Wired, a warehouse-like studio in Dublin, where Bragg's longtime producer Grant Showbiz and former Fairport Convention engineer Jerry Boys, fresh from The Buena Vista Social Club, worked the board. Surrounded by musicians going through the "weirdness and decompression" that comes from touring—as Bennett puts it—Bragg saw the writing on the wall, namely 40 song titles on a big piece of paper on the wall of the studio. He knew they were either going to have to stop or do more than one record. Vol. II was born.

Bragg picked up a resonator guitar for the first time during the Dublin sessions, while Wilco approached the song development process in their traditional way, starting first with acoustic guitars, then searching around for appropriate instruments—an electric sitar, banjo or fiddle—later. "There was an element of not wanting to be modern for modern's sake, not wanting to put a hip-hop beat on 'Meanest Man,' which you clearly could—it's one of those great bragging songs, y'know, about how mean I am. But it just wouldn't work like that because in the end if you read the lyric and listen to the lyric, he turns out to be a big softie, so we kind of pushed that one in a kind of Tom Waitsy direction," Bragg explains.

"These are modern songs, and they deserve a modern setting. A lot of them are written in the late '40s, early '50s, and this was a time when rock 'n' roll was being born, and I feel, from what I know of Woody Guthrie and his obsession with new gadgets, which he spent all his money on as soon as he got it on a new car or a new pop-up toaster or a new radio, he would have bought the first electric guitars and he would have gone electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1952."

The Mermaid Avenue CD sound is somewhere down the road from Dylan's Highway 61, beneath a Nashville Skyline, and, in fact, Bragg says one of his main influences was another Dylan classic, The Basement Tapes. "There's something about the idea of five guys playing in a room with 50-year-old songs," he speculates. "Around the time that I was putting together Mermaid Avenue and writing the songs and doing the research, I was reading Greil Marcus' book, Invisible Republic, which is about the making of The Basement Tapes, and I really got a feel about the archaeology of working with older material. Although we consciously didn't go to a sound like The Basement Tapes, we did want to go to that weird place, where the new learned something from the old, not the other way around. We were in that kind of space, if you understand what I mean: young guys with modern instruments playing old timey music and LOVING it. That's why we recorded 40 tracks. It was just such great stuff we couldn't stop recording it."

There were distractions—the freezing January cold of Ireland, for one, which led to the gas heater getting a credit on the album. "Every weekend, I went back to London to my family and the Wilcos were left to do whatever they wanted to do in Dublin," Bragg recalls. "By the fourth weekend, they pleaded with us, if there was anywhere in Europe that was warm, could they go there for the weekend? So we sent them along to Barcelona for three days, and they had a great time, they wandered around Barcelona and didn't go to sleep, and it was warm, and they were happy and they came back, and we finished the album."

Bennett paints a picture of a band coping with mood swings and post-tour stress throughout the recording of both volumes. "Interestingly enough, these sessions were full of a lot of individuals going through some emotional turmoil, everybody kind of going through their own personal thing," explains Bennett. "Add in the extra emotional element of working with another artist that you haven't worked with before. They were very emotional sessions, not necessarily directly related to what we were doing musically. On any given day, somebody was in a funk—be it me or Jeff or John [Stirratt, Wilco bassist]. When we were in a certain mood, we picked a certain kind of song to record. There were times when you go with a sad lyric on a gray day, but then there might be other times when you wanted to snap yourself out of something, so we'd go to a happy little bluegrass number like 'Joe DiMaggio.'"

Says Bragg: "I suppose it must have been like Exile on Main Street—there were so many songs flying around, and so many overdubs, we were trying to keep track of them with a big chart on the wall. We had two houses in Dublin, a smoking house and a nonsmokers' house. I was in the nonsmokers' house with the rhythm section, and every night, we watched European MTV and we wouldn't go to bed until we had seen the 'Smack My Bitch Up' video. In our house, we were watching un-P.C. videos. In the other house, they were smoking cigarettes—isn't that outrageous? It was so rock 'n' roll," he deadpans.

In spite of the creature comforts, and discomforts, the mixing of the first Mermaid Avenue generated some conflict, which was later conflated as an all-out feud by rock 'n' roll rumor mills. "I've never made an album where someone else had a veto on mixes and nor had Jeff Tweedy. His ideas and my ideas weren't the same, but we managed to find a compromise. We hammered out a way to work and we stuck with it: The songs that I wrote, I mixed, and the songs Wilco wrote, Wilco mixed," Bragg explains. He's clearly uncomfortable about dredging up the disagreement but will to attack the issue as tactfully as he can. For his part, Bennett downplays the dissension as something any band would go through, picking tracks from so many songs.

This year Wilco, ever tweaking their recipe for country, roots and rock, returned to their own Chicago studio to record a few more tunes for Vol. II. Those included the wall-of-sound pop of "Secret of the Sea" and the ambient experimentation of "Someday"—songs that Bragg says he was happily surprised by. And as a result of working with Wilco and experiencing their brand of creative give-and-take, Bragg thinks that his next album will be different. He wanted to record with his band, rather than overdubbing it alone, this year. In the past, he "sweat blood" in the studio.

"Mermaid Avenue was—we have that phrase in England—a busman's holiday. It's when a busman goes on holiday and drives a bus like he does all the time. So for me, it was just a joy. All these lyrics were already written; there were piles and piles of them, and we just had to put nice tunes to them," he says. "I've made albums on the last day of mixing, I've been rewriting the lyrics and having to go in and do it, and the producer
has been saying to me, 'Bill, we've got to mix this song today—we're cutting it next week for chrissakes. Leave these lyrics alone.' And I've been like, 'Wait, wait, I've got a great idea for this line.'"

Now tentatively making plans to tour America this fall, perhaps with Wilco, Bragg is satisfied, collecting kudos for Vol. II and nursing a back injury that temporarily sidelined him this summer. So how does this musical meeting of old and new fit in a world of 'N Sync and Britney Spears? "I've never made a record that fitted in! So I never really think of all that," Bragg says with a chortle. His biggest hit in England, which went to number one in 1988, was a cover of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home," off the Sgt.
Pepper Knew My Father
tribute/benefit album—and even that seemed like something of a freak occurrence.

In contrast, the first Mermaid Avenue sold more than any of his other records, Bragg says. Other unreleased songs remain in the hopper, and a documentary of the making of Mermaid Avenue is scheduled to air on PBS this fall.

Still, Bragg's trip—with a man he's never met, yet speaks for, a man he seems to know as well as he knows himself—has continued for so long that it's no surprise he's ready to move on. "I don't know what we will eventually do with the remainder of the songs. I'm sure they will one day see the light of day," he muses. "But the great thing is that there are so many more songs. Plenty of people would like to go and have a look and see what is there and see what they can work with. I would feel really bad if I was the only person who ever was allowed to do it."