I can’t honestly remember how I first heard that Billy Bragg and Wilco were going to be teaming up for an album of a bunch of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. I do remember my reaction, which was that it was about the least likely juxtaposition that I ever expected to experience. Little did I know.
I knew about Billy Bragg, a bit, by then: I’d been introduced to him not long after I got out of college, as the British Falkland Islands war vet who’d turned into a punkish protest singer, though many of his songs struck me at the time as slightly heavy-handed and humorless for my tastes. (Though I could see where fighting a bloody war over a tiny rock covered with bird poop might turn one that way.) And I’d already seen him perform at a Woody Guthrie 80th birthday concert in Central Park, so I knew he cared deeply about the man’s music.
As for Wilco, I was more familiar with them, having read about their predecessor band Uncle Tupelo in Option magazine (those were the days when you could discover bands by reading magazines, not to mention discover magazines by scouring actual physical magazine racks), and then having been sent a cassette recording of a live radio broadcast of one of their shows by my college friend David, who was a big fan.
I knew about Woody Guthrie, too, of course, though partly by osmosis: He was Arlo’s dad, and the guy who taught Bob Dylan how to be Bob Dylan, and had a guitar with something about fighting fascists on it. I might by then have even have read the terrific biography Woody Guthrie: A Life (by Joe Klein, of all people), which not only explains the guitar thing, but also why Guthrie was such a politically important figure — the book was the first to unearth the missing verses of “This Land Is My Land” — and the multiple tragedies that defined his life, culminating in his Huntington’s chorea diagnosis and early death.
So Bragg and Wilco each performing songs that Guthrie wrote in his later years but never recorded (or wrote music to, meaning the reinterpreters had to set his lyrics to their own music) made sense in a way. Them doing so together, though, sounded bonkers.
As anyone who has heard Mermaid Avenue knows, it worked better than ever could have been expected. Bragg and Tweedy switch off singing duties, mostly, and Wilco provides the backing band. (Natalie Merchant drops in for a couple of songs as well.) Bragg’s songs are enlivened by Wilco’s musicianship, and Tweedy’s pop craftsmanship is finally freed from his wordsmithery. (There’s no shame in being a genius at hooks whose lyrics are often kind of dumb; I mean, Paul McCartney isn’t always exactly a poet, either.) And Guthrie’s late-career mental problems end up spitting out some works of bizarre genius — the lyrics of “She Came Along To Me” lurch and detour but in Bragg’s voice end up surrounding a kind of beauty, while “Hoodoo Voodoo” is utter gibberish, but sublimely so. All told, it might just be my favorite Billy Bragg album and my favorite Wilco album and my favorite Woody Guthrie album. Now that we’re entering another time when protest songs, and protest singers, are going to be needed more than ever, it’s worth noting that sometimes it’s the most unlikely approach that ends up being the most powerful. I bet Woody’s son never expected to create a Thanksgiving tradition and rallying cry for building a movement one voice at a time when he dumped one pile of garbage on another pile of garbage.
Speaking of Arlo, he was at that 80th birthday show, too, along with Bragg. I barely remember either of them, but I do remember a stunning set by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy that had about one-third of the crowd on its feet, and the other two-thirds staring blankly. But that’s a story I’ll get around to in a few more spins of the iTunes wheel.