[Today: Woody lives...]
Woody Guthrie may have been the father of modern folk music, but by age 35 he was more or less done as a recording artist. A number of factors – including his declining health and a harsh political climate – conspired to keep him out of a recording studio for the last 20 years of his life. But Guthrie continued to write songs – songs that referenced Ingrid Bergman and Walt Whitman, union battles and dark highwaymen who rob from the rich to give to the poor, and anything else that crossed his fertile imagination. In the mid-60s, Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, and during his final years he was sought out as a folk oracle by young singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan. Guthrie promised Dylan a crack at his stash of unpublished songs, but after he passed away in 1967, legal entanglements prevented Dylan from doing anything with those songs.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, to the spring of 1995, when Guthrie’s daughter Nora reached out to Billy Bragg and asked if he’d like to put music to Woody’s lyrics. “In her original letter to me, Nora talked of breaking the mould,” Bragg wrote in the album liner notes, “of working with her father to give his words a new sound and a new context. The result is not a tribute album but a collaboration between Woody Guthrie and a new generation of songwriters who until now had only glimpsed him fleetingly, over the shoulder of Bob Dylan or somewhere in the distance of a Bruce Springsteen song.” The result of that collaboration, Mermaid Avenue, did more than just breath life into Guthrie’s songs – it built a living bridge to an older, wiser, and infinitely more interesting America.
In the course of these songs (one small sliver of his unrecorded works), Guthrie parties with a niece of Walt Whitman (he’ll not say which one), captures the breathtaking beauty of the Golden State, makes Ingrid Bergman a proposition she can’t refuse, nominates Christ for the highest office in the land, brags on his musical skills to bed a girl, presents a compelling case for women’s lib, and says goodbye to loved ones through death, deportation and heartbreak. Mermaid Avenue sounds thoroughly modern and thoroughly ancient, the whistle of train and clatter of icebox fully embedded in the DNA of its songs. These are songs about ourselves, the way we were, and the way we always will be: heartbroken, self-righteous, joyous, mysterious, ridiculous, simple, poetic, timeless.
Guthrie famously covered his guitar with the phrase “This Machine Kills Facists”, but as Mermaid Avenue so plainly proves, it was his songs that were killer…
Listen: California Stars
Listen: Ingrid Bergman
Listen: Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key
Listen: The Unwelcome Guest