Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Doing Woody's Work

The Mermaid Avenue Demos

A few week's ago Wilco released a timely download of Woody Guthrie's The Jolly Banker. You can grab the track in exchange for a suggested donation to the Guthrie Foundation and Archives at the Wilco website; it's worth hearing for Nels Cline's lap steel alone.

Wilco's involvement with the Woody Guthrie Archive began in 1997 when Billy Bragg recruited them to collaborate on Mermaid Avenue, the wonderful album that put new music to Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics.

Bragg became the at unlikely ringleader for this great American project after Guthrie's daughter Nora encountered him in 1992. According to Andrew Collins' biog Still Suitable for Miners, Nora was taken by the fact that Billy's song You Woke Up My Neighbourhood was named after a Guthrie painting he'd seen in the Smithsonian. Instead of asking one of the usual suspects - Dylan, Springsteen, Arlo, Seeger etc - Nora was "a bit mischievous" in inviting the Englishman to immerse himself in her father's work.

If you've not heard either of the Mermaid Avenue albums you should buy them immediately. They are like a contemporary Basement Tapes - loose, warm, collaborative, funny and a route to one of America's richest musical and sociological veins.

For those who are familiar with the records these demos offer alternate and early takes and a few tracks that aren't on the albums.

I'd also highly recommend the documentary Man In The Sand. It's much more than a making-of doc and although best known for the sometimes frosty on-screen relationship between Bragg and Tweedy (Billy loves fascist baiting; Jeff's less keen) the film is also a great introduction to the Woody Guthrie story.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do.

Mermaid Avenue Demos

MP3: She Came Along To Me

MP3: All You Fascists

MP3: Aginst Th' Law

MP3: Aginst Th' Law (alt. take)

MP3: When The Roses Bloom Again

MP3: California Stars

MP3: Hestitaing Beauty

MP3: Greenback Dollar

MP3: My Flying Saucer

MP3: Hoodoo Voodoo

MP3: Ain't Gonna Grieve My Lord No More

MP3: Give Me A Nail

Related Links
Searchlight Magazine Interview with Nora Guthrie
DVD Talk Interview with Nora Guthrie

Buy Billy Bragg & Wilco at Amazon
Mermaid Avenue
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2
Man in the Sand DVD


Martin said...

Your timing in spotlighting this classic collaboration is rather foreboding, Nigel: ex-Wilco mate Jay Bennett died over the weekend at his home. Cause is still being investigated. He was 45. The multi-instrumentalist was a key figure in the Mermaid Avenue collection.

Nigel Smith said...

Yes. Very sad news indeed.

Nigel Smith said...

Here's Billy's tribute to Jay:

Jay Bennett RIP

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