Today’s another example of time catching me out as I’d never have guessed it is now 20 years since Mermaid Avenue, the collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco in which music was put to previously unheard lyrics by the late Woody Guthrie, one of America’s most revered folk musicians.
The project had been a number of years in the making, its origins lying with Nora Guthrie, who was the director of her father’s foundation and archives. Woody had been a prolific lyricist and his archives contained more than a thousand sets of lyrics to which music had never been put and it was her dream/ambition that they be offered to a contemporary artist who could put a late 20th century slant on things, with the hope that her father’s work and legacy would reach a newer and wider audience. Billy Bragg was the person to whom she turned, but in doing so she wanted the songs not to simply be a pastiche of her dad’s sound.
The singer/songwriter was extremely honoured but unsure if he could do the project full justice and in turn he asked Wilco, a then relatively new(ish) band from Chicago with its roots in indie and country rock, to consider lending a hand.
The results were surprisingly good. The efforts of all concerned did justice to the brief insisted on by Nora with it being a genuine collaboration for the most parts with Billy often being backed by Wilco (in much the same way as he had enjoyed recording with The Red Stars and various guest musicians in the early 90s and would do again with The Blokes in the noughties) while the band itself drafted Billy in on acoustic guitar and backing vocals on the lyrics to which they were writing the music. Billy’s tunes were recorded in Dublin and Wilco’s tunes in their home city. A number of other musicians, such as Natalie Merchant, Bob Egan and Eliza Carthy came on board as guests, adding further layers of authenticity class to the finished product. The critics reacted positively to Mermaid Avenue, sales were quite decent and all seemed to be good.
The following year, a 90-minute DVD was released in which the story of the venture was told, including great studio footage and interviews with all concerned, during which a few tensions were revealed, particularly around who got to choose which lyrics and how best they should be recorded. There was also a bit of angst over the fact that the song selected by the record label for the single didn’t really feature Wilco and indeed was probably the closest to a Woody-type recording rather than a contemporary interpretation. The fact is, however, it is the most striking and memorable track on the album:-
I’ve no doubt that Billy, upon seeing the refrain ‘ain’t nobody who can sing like me’ was desperate to grab this one for himself. It’s one that really does lend itself to his gentle acoustic side, while the violin accordion and backing vocal from Ms Merchant turn it into a thing of genuine and moving beauty.
There were two previously unavailable tracks added to the CD single:-
Both are tracks in which Billy wrote the music, which sort of gave the impression that Wilco were a junior partner in the collaboration, a situation which understandably annoyed frontman Jeff Tweedy. Listen closely to the former and you’ll hear the tune is very much based on Battle Cry for Freedom, from which Billy had composed Power In A Union on his 1986 album, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry.
Interestingly, when Billy went out on the road with The Blokes to perform the songs from Mermaid Avenue, he took a completely different tack with Way Over Yonder…..