"My initial reaction was, 'Surely this is Bob Dylan's job'" -- Billy Bragg
To commemorate 100 years since Woody Guthrie's birth, Nonesuch Records will release the four-disc "Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions," a set collecting Billy Bragg and Wilco's take on lyrics the songwriter's daughter unearthed after some 50 years in hiding.
The Record Store Day release, slated for April 21, will pair the Grammy-nominated 1998 and 2000 Mermaid Avenue albums with a third volume of 17 unreleased songs and a making-of documentary, Man in the Sand.
"California Stars" (Live)
As America's first punk-poet and consummate blue-collar hell-raiser, Woody Guthrie arrived in New York City in 1940 and wrote "This Land is Your Land." But there were thousands of other songs, locked away from the threats of McCarthyism and those infamous Hollywood Blacklists. (Guthrie would never have gotten away with "Christ for President" or "All You Fascists," after all.) In those days writers of topical tunes were often targets of government witch-hunts, which is why these Guthrie songs went unheard until his daughter Nora created the Mermaid Avenue project.
When she approached English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg at a Woody tribute concert in Central Park in 1992, Guthrie proposed that he dig through her father's stack of old writings, put some of them to music, and preserve his spirit through an album for a new generation to appreciate. As she explained, these never-before-heard songs represented the Woody Guthrie no one knew -- this was the New York City side of the Oklahoma-born legend.
"I was a bit worried that I was going to end up making a Billy Bragg record rather than a Woody Guthrie record," Bragg told Billboard by phone. "My initial reaction was, 'Surely this is Bob Dylan's job.'"
It almost was. A young Dylan occasionally visited Guthrie while a hospital patient in New Jersey from 1956 until 1961. During that time he encouraged Dylan to travel to his home on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, where boxes of unpublished songs awaited Dylan's musical interpretation. Following a long train ride and trudge through a swamp, he arrived at Guthrie's house to find his young son Arlo with a startled babysitter; Dylan left empty-handed.
And so the job to sort through those undiscovered songs became Bragg's decades later. "There was enough fossilized song there for you to judge what kind of song it was," he said.
Bragg invited Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett to help handpick them -- he knew from the band's Being There album that Wilco could play in any style. Indeed, some recordings emerged as feisty, rollicking numbers ("Aginst th' Law," "Walt Whitman's Niece"), while others offered uplifting, textured stunners ("Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" also features a soaring harmony vocal from Natalie Merchant). The group recorded 47 in all.
"That kind of opened the floodgates, that first album," Bragg said of the 1997 sessions. "We didn't realize it was going to be three albums. We just thought we were making one record. So we were really trying to make a balanced record rather than a particular record."
Bragg recalled that while recording "Another Man's Done Gone" in Dublin, one particular Guthrie lyric struck everyone in the studio: "I may go/Down or up or anywhere/But I feel/Like this scribbling might stay."
"That to me was the one moment where we touched base with the little guy. And we said back to him, 'Yeah, damn right. It will stay,'" Bragg said. "That's when I felt his spirit somewhere sort of smiling on the fact that out of all the great songs we found, we found that one too."
Though Guthrie died from the incurable Huntington's disease in 1967, his voice lives on in places like New York, the birthplace of last year's Occupy Wall Street movement. ("If he was alive today, he would be headlining this event," Tom Morello told Zuccotti Park gatherers in October.) And last month, in the spirit of Mermaid Avenue, a group of musicians, including Son Volt's Jay Farrar and My Morning Jacket frontman Yim Yames, released New Multitudes, their spin on more unreleased Guthrie works.
Guthrie's son Arlo and John Mellencamp will headline Saturday's "This Land is Your Land" tribute concert in Tulsa, Okla. The event will also feature performances from the Flaming Lips and Rosanne Cash, among others.