After seeing him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg in 1992 about a project. It seemed Woody Guthrie had left the lyrics for thousands of songs he had written but not recorded and for which, no music had been notated. Nora wanted to bring these songs to life for a new generation. Bragg agreed but not before enlisting the help of American alternative rock band, Wilco. The results were better than anyone could have expected, garnering critical acclaim, record sales, and a Grammy for everyone’s troubles.
I picked up on this album a few years after its release and mostly because I’d been a fan of Billy Bragg for a number of years. I’d heard a few of its songs beforehand but didn’t know then that they were re-creations of those written by Guthrie. Of course, when I first listened to it, I preferred the songs sung by Bragg to the others sung by Jeff Tweedy because I only knew Wilco by name, not their music. However, I have since grown to love all of the songs and appreciate the difference Tweedy’s voice lends to those others.
The sound and instrumentation of “Mermaid avenue” was definitely different from what I was used to with Bragg, which is likely why he wanted Wilco to help: to signal to all that this was not about him. It is old school Americana but with a modern edge, like actors dressing up in old costumes but speaking in modern colloquial. I’m not all that familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music, save for the iconic “This land is your land”, of course, but I have to imagine he would’ve been happy with the results. His daughter definitely was because the success of this album spawned two later volumes, as well as a box set collecting all of the compilations in one set.
It is typically difficult to narrow down my picks for you to three but this one was near impossible so I just took the first three in running order. Enjoy.
“Walt Whitman’s niece”: My first pick here is a song that sounds like a tall tale that might be spun in any bar in the world. “Last night or the night before that, I won’t say which night, a seaman friend of mine, I’ll not say which seaman…” It is a literary conquest sung (and told) by Bragg with the band members of Wilco as house band. You can almost picture Bragg sitting precariously on a stool having at it on his guitar after one too many and the band stomping along with him at the piano and harmonica, shouting along with him at the appropriate parts. It’s unseemly and full of innuendo and lots of good fun. Whitman would’ve been proud.
“California stars”: Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) sings this next one around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the fields with fellow workers. “I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California stars. I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars.” It is a clear but lonely night. The sky is big and full of stars but not the same ones that watch over California, where his beloved lays sleeping and waiting for him. You can feel this longing and dreaming in every strum on the guitar, whine of the pedal steel and peal of fiddle. Tweedy’s voice is perfect here, giving it a completely different than it would’ve had if sung by Bragg. It’ll charm you for sure.
“Way over yonder in the minor key”: This one’s got a feel that reminds me of Huck Finn or The Little Rascals. “Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree and laid it on the she and me. It stung lots worse than a hive of bees but there ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” Its language is childish, like a skipping game or patty cakes, and suggests a young first love. Billy Bragg leads the tale with Natalie Merchant adding her lovely vocals at the chorus. It’s gentle and melancholic, perhaps a remembering of a time long gone. It’s so beautiful, you’ll want to listen to it over and over again.
Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.