Tuesday, August 17, 2010

album of the day: Mermaid Avenue

Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted left-leaning British songwriter/celebrant of the working class Billy Bragg about some finished lyrics Guthrie left behind, among hundreds of songs the astoundingly prolific Guthrie wrote. Bragg went through a ton of them, chose a few, and got Wilco and Natalie Merchant to write and record them with him.

The result is this tremendously warm, humane, spirited album, named for the street on Coney Island where Guthrie owned a house for many years and where he generally failed to raise a family.

Don't get me wrong. I love Woody Guthrie. I love his songs, his witty writing, his populism, and the fact that he wrote "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" on his guitars. He never really did, nor wanted to do, anything but write and perform, meet new people, have sex, and drink. He left behind loved ones in several states, and children, and jobs, and spent a great deal of time wandering, practically homeless, with practically no possessions or prospects. He treated a lot of people without much care, but I tend to think it was more out of being determinedly carefree, not careless.

One could debate the authenticity of Guthrie's music and voice until the cows come home. I imagine Woody would dismiss that debate, in a lengthy Oklahoma drawl containing no terminal Gs, with a sophisticated political and moral argument. To me, what Woody learned and unlearned over his life is what makes the humanity of his music ring true. He grew up the son of a speculator in real estate, politics, and whatever else came around. His family boomed, then busted, then bankrupted, then dispersed. He also grew up in a two-bit racist Oklahoma town in a two-bit racist Oklahoma family, that mistrusted any initiative but self-interest. Woody unlearned his racism and learned his (albeit relatively ungrounded) solidarity with the working class by aimlessly ending up in one Depression hellhole after another, including some truly rotten dehumanizing experiences in Tracy and Turlock. (I think most people have had lousy experiences in Tracy, but I, for one, was never forced to crawl out of town by a sheriff, three days since my last meal, in the chill of the arid night, without water.)

What these experiences did in defining Guthrie's lyrical voice is also a matter of ongoing musicological speculation. Just taking the songs as they stand, however, they propose some wonderful and tragic things about human life that are worth listening to.

The songs here range in emotion from deathbed confessional on "Another Man's Done Gone," sung low by Bragg with backing from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, to the nonsensical child's amusement of "Hoodoo Voodoo," sung with abandon by Tweedy. Some of the best of these songs are the gentler, quieter, less overtly political ones. "Birds and Ships," sung by Natalie Merchant with solo guitar accompaniment from Bragg, is a love song in dialogue between two lovers separated by the sea, and, I believe, by the war the seaman is heading for. "California Stars," performed by Wilco, thanks the heavens for their offer of repose and peace to the exhausted.

Not that the political songs aren't any good. "Christ for President" is a proto-Green Party call for taking all the money out of politics, but admits that the only likely way that'll happen is if Christ is elected. "The Unwelcome Guest" tells a Robin Hood story, expressing Guthrie's (admittedly naive) sense of distributive justice.

One of my favorite aspects of the album is the multiple voices and approaches the performers take. The material is varied, and where they wrote music for the words Guthrie left behind, they did a masterful job matching tone and bringing them to life. Today, listening as I walked through Turlock, I was especially interested in the couple of songs ("She Came Along To Me" and "The Unwelcome Guest") that have backing vocals very reminiscent of the old Woody Guthrie recordings made by Alan Lomax.

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