As I understand it, the story goes something like this. Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, approached Britain’s modern equivalent, Billy Bragg, after seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert with the proposition of bringing some of her father’s unrecorded compositions to life. Bragg agreed, but not before enlisting the help of American indie folk/rock group, Wilco. The extraordinary and perhaps a bit surprising results were recorded and released as 1998’s Grammy-nominated album, “Mermaid avenue”. In fact, it was so successful that a second volume was released two years later, followed by a three volume box set that included outtakes in 2012.
This song, “Way over yonder in the minor key”, is a bit unique on this list of covers series in that we don’t have an original recording to which to compare it. Apparently, when Woody Guthrie died, he left behind manuscripts containing the lyrics to over a thousand songs but because he never read or wrote music, we’ll never know for sure how these were really meant to sound. Yet without a solid guide, I think Billy Bragg has done a fine job here, keeping to Guthrie’s spirit but adding his own personal touch. It’s simply strummed on his acoustic guitar and sung in his inimitable and working class accented vocals. He’s enlisted Wilco’s Jay Bennet to lay down a lovely Hammond B-3 backbone, some Eliza McCarthy fiddles, and of course, Natalie Merchant’s lovely backing vocal track.
“Way over yonder” is one of the lesser politically-charged of Guthrie’s tunes and is not overtly making social commentary but perhaps is more personal. It’s light and jocular, calling to mind a simpler time. Childhood. And all of those childhood teasing games.
“She said it’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my luttle girly, that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me”
For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.