Born in 1912, shaped by the 1930s, recording mostly in the 1940s, the shadow self of a young Bob Dylan in the early 1960s and dead in 1967, Woody Guthrie made his mark as a left-wing version of the professional American. If you listen to him now—homing in on such all-American folk passwords as “Stackolee” and “When That Great Ship Went Down” or on Guthrie’s own compositions, from “This Land Is Your Land” to “Farmer-Labor Train”—he can sound very far away. His singing ranges from witty to ghostly to (too often) dull. Flights of craft and inspiration in his words and melodies can be dragged down to earth by the freight they carry: the perfectly weighed and measured details of saying the politically proper thing in the politically proper way.
You can hear a similar imprisonment in the careers of Billy Bragg and Wilco. Since 1983, Bragg has combined a heavy East End London accent, often the naked sound of his own electric guitar, and a political sensibility that owes more to the 1930s than to any time since. He has left behind “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” which still feels like an open wound, and a slew of pieces testifying mostly to the fact that his heart is in the right place, even if he wears it on his sleeve. Singer Jeff Tweedy stepped out with Uncle Tupelo in 1990; there or in Wilco, with guitarist and keyboard player Jay Bennett, drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt, he has sung more at his red-dirt revisions of the oldest folk and country airs than from inside them. He has seemed far more sure of himself singing other people’s songs, even such seemingly uncoverable eruptions of the American Gothic as Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues” or Dock Boggs’ “Sugar Baby,” both of which were originally recorded around seventy years ago. It’s as if Tweedy loves the old American music too much to trust his own.Thus it’s the best shock of the year to find Mermaid Avenue opening with a couple of sailors tripping over each other in search of booze and pussy—there being no more proper way to put it. “Walked up to a big old building/I won’t say which building,” Bragg says happily. “Walked up the stairs/Not to say which stairs”—and just like that, with a crowd of smelly drunks shouting Bragg through the choruses, Guthrle’s lyric sheet for “Walt Whitman’s Niece” turns into some seemingly fated tangle of “Gloria,” Last Exit to Brooklyn and Beach Boys’ Party as performed by the Three Stooges. For the rest of the disc, making a better world is inseparable from making a better night, and the historical treasure of Guthrie’s found lyrics yields to the melodies and arrangements that Bragg and Wilco use to bring them to life.
Hard or even impossible to place, those melodies, from just below the surface of the American pop tradition or from the true depths of the British folk tradition, float Guthrie’s screeds, stories and musings off into a realm where he is freed from his legend—into a realm where the people now singing his songs are freed from respect for it. The songs seemingly move of their own accord, and the record becomes unstable. The number that you know is the best piece here isn’t the one with the tune you can’t get out of your head—and which one that might be changes every other day. From Tweedy’s dry-as-dust vocal on “Hesitating Beauty”—a seduction song named for Guthrie’s daughter—to the rousing sing-along Bragg makes of “I Guess I Planted,” Guthrie’s summation of his life’s work, the forgotten or untold stories in the songs become a new story, and it all comes to verge with “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.”A young man gets a young woman to crawl into a hollow tree with him; promising that “there ain’t nobody that can sing like me,” he gets her to take off her shirt; years and years later, he looks back and smiles. The melody that guides this slowly told, perfectly written tale convinces you that even if the man grew up to rob widows and orphans, he has lived a blessed life. Natalie Merchant, coming in behind Bragg’s lead, opens up the song, making it the woman’s as much as the man’s; Eliza Carthy’s fiddle, seemingly waiting in the melody long before it chooses to take up Guthrie’s words, makes the story being told feel as old as the stories told in the oldest folk songs, in “The Coo Coo” or “The House Carpenter.” As Bragg and Wilco perform it, the number is also no more than what it is: an old man’s grin.
Mermaid Avenue is not the place to discover Woody Guthrie; it may not even be the place to discover Wilco or Billy Bragg. The record is a thing in itself, perhaps standing outside the stories told by the careers of its principals, as if already looking back on all their failures, saying this time you got it right.
Rolling Stone, June 1, 1998