The first time I remember hearing anything meaningful about Woody Guthrie came in the spring of 2001 in the midst of one of the most flagrant consumer fleecings in recent memory — that scam dubbed “The California Energy Crisis.” I was on the UC San Diego campus listening to a speech by neo-populist Jim Hightower, who was warming up the bearded, Birkenstock-wearing crowd for Ralph Nader’s keynote sermon on corporate greed.
“I’m sure you all grew up singing a sanitized version of Woody Guthrie’s `This Land is Your Land,'” Hightower drawled from beneath his Stetson in a nasaly Texas accent, not unlike Guthrie’s Oklahoma twang. “But most of you don’t know the extra verse that gets left out of that song in your fourth grade classroom.”
The audience was captivated. As Hightower began to recite, the auditorium was so quiet you could hear a hacky-sack drop.
“The was a big high wall there/ that tried to stop me,
The sign was painted/ said `private property’
But on the back side/ it didn’t say nothin’
This land was made for you and me.”
A spark was kindled that night. I wanted to know more about this man — this radical I had once pegged as the writer of a mindless patriotic jingle.
As little as I knew about Woody then, I knew even less about Wilco. At least a mention of Guthrie made it into my fifth grade history text book next to a picture of a dour Herbert Hoover. As for the Chicago band, I’d heard the mystifying “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” on a friend’s mix tape, but that was it.
A year later at a record store, I was formally introduced to both. When I first saw the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration Mermaid Avenue, Volume I in the Summer of 2002, four years after its release, I was reminded of Hightower’s words and figured it was worth a listen.
Since that first spin, I’ve bought copies for three of my friends, not to mention every album Wilco has ever pressed. Needless to say, it’s a remarkable record.
Mermaid Avenue reunites the long-dead folk singer with the modern pop-rock world he helped create. It was, after all, that strange amalgam of Guthrie and Little Richard, blended in the brain of Bob Dylan, that succeeded in bringing a pop sensibility to folk, and a folk-seriousness to rock and roll.
In that sense, Bragg and Wilco were the perfect choice for such a project — joining Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics the music of two of his most vibrant descendants.
As one might expect, the Socialist English folkie, Bragg, does most of the heavy lifting on Guthrie’s political songs (though Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy does contribute the populist gospel “Christ For President” and chilling backing vocals on “The Unwelcome Guest.”). It’s an appropriate choice considering Bragg’s rise to prominence playing for striking coal miners, making the pro-union anthem “Guess I Planted” ring all the more true.
But it’s Wilco that helps make Guthrie whole, rather than just a one-dimensional social crusader. The highlight of the album is Tweedy’s gorgeous vocals over Corey Harris’ weeping steel guitar on the touchingly romantic “California Stars.” Wilco also shines with wistful ballads, “At My Window Sad and Lonely” and “One By One.”
The group’s alt-country flavor meshes fabulously with Guthrie’s lyrics, born amid a time of drifting dust clouds and drifting men on the Great Plains. Indeed, it’s the timelessness of both that makes the record truly great.
And quite a meaningful introduction, at that.
Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
Son Volt – Trace