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.
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set previously unpublished Guthrie lyrics to music,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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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.").
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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,"
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
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,"
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."
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."
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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
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
Pepper Knew My Father
tribute/benefit album—and even that seemed
like something of a freak occurrence.
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.
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."