Review: Mermaid Avenue (vol. I & II) – Billy Bragg & Wilco

Mermaid AvenueBilly Bragg & Wilco

Mermaid Avenue Vol. II – Billy Bragg & Wilco

Two albums in one review.

These days instead of me recommending music to my boys, they have started recommending music to me. Justin and Trish recommended these because they figured they would fit into my taste in music, and into my love of history. OK, they didn’t come right out and state it that way, but I am fairly sure that is what they were thinking. They were right.

A little background on these two albums. The most interesting thing is that the lyrics belong to Woody Guthrie. He wrote the songs (mostly) while living on Mermaid Avenue in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. These were the WWII and post-WWII years when Woody was at his peak creatively, but waning physically and mentally from the early effects of Huntington’s Disease. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs during this time period, but unfortunately because he learned to play the guitar “by ear”, he did not record or write down the music. When he died in 1967 all the tunes he kept in his head were forever lost. All that remains from this outpouring of music are the lyrics.

Enter Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and Arlo’s younger sister. She approached some currently popular singer/songwriter/activist types and asked them to put music behind some of the lyrics. The result is this two album set by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Nora did a good thing here. While the music may not be Woody’s a new generation, like my son and daughter-in-law, have now been exposed to the wonderfully creative and outspoken mind of Woody Guthrie. When I first started listening to these albums I was a little hesitant. But the songs grew on me, and it was not long before my toes were tapping and I was singing along with the choruses of some songs. During the pauses between songs, I swear I could hear Woody singing “Car Song” and “This Land is Your Land”.

There are some wondrous songs on the first album of the set. “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” really grabbed me. I was humming it the rest of the day. Billy Bragg wrote the music (filled with minor keys) and the backing vocals of Natalie Merchant complemented his lead vocals perfectly. “Hoodoo Voodoo” was a fun song that would have been perfect for any live performance, but especially one with children in the audience. Jeff Tweedy, the front man from Wilco, did a wonderful job with the lead vocals.

The second volume also has some fantastic songs. Natalie Merchant provides lead vocals for the whimsical “I Was Born” and Jeff Tweedy provides an Arlo Guthrie like performance on “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again”. The ballad “Remember the Mountain Bed” has some of the most beautiful lyrics I have ever encountered. Woody was a romantic. “My Flying Saucer” isn’t actually a science fiction piece, but isn’t it neat that Woody would use that phrase to create a song. “Stetson Kennedy” delighted the lay historian in me.

Overall these are two remarkable albums. The music is solid and I am going to keep my eyes and ears open for music from both Billy Bragg and Wilco. But it is ultimately the lyrics that carry the day for me. Part of me hopes that Arlo Guthrie and perhaps Bob Dylan will tackle the task of creating more music for Woody’s lyrics, but perhaps this is to much to ask from a son or a protégé.

Pundits label Woody Guthrie a socialist, but in reality I think he is more of a progressive than most right wingers would like to admit. What matters is that at a time when the European fascists were in power, Woody toured our nation with a guitar with the words “This machine kills Fascists” on it. And at a time when citizens were being accused of being un-American communists by small minded unreasoning politicians, Woody kept singing, “this land belongs to you and me”.

He is one of the most gifted, pro-American, songwriters this nation has ever had.

Thank-you, Trish and Justin, for recommending these albums to me. I recommend the same for everyone else. Give them a listen.

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