Review : Billy Bragg - Mermaid Avenue
PopmattersIn the documentary Man in the Sand, which chronicles the collaboration of Billy Bragg and Wilco to turn long-forgotten Woody Guthrie lyrics into actual songs, Bragg walks around Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, trying to get an idea of the people and surroundings that inspired the populist bard of American folk. Bragg wanders around deserted streets, talks to the locals, and even discovers the remains of Guthrie’s birthplace, the planks of wood tucked away in the corner of a local shop.
In one scene, Bragg chats with a woman who runs an antique shop, hoping to find any artifact that might shed some light into Guthrie’s background or any clue into his experience as an Okie before he set across the country and back, chronicling his every adventure. Eager to show Bragg some link to Guthrie, the woman pulls out a sign she displayed in front of her business, proudly proclaiming Okemah as Guthrie’s hometown.
Not surprisingly, the sign is defaced, Guthrie’s named crossed out with spray paint, the words “Commie Red, A Draft Dogger [sic]” scrawled in disgust. Though the inability of the culprits to spell a simple word is humorous, the message is nonetheless ominous: those left of center are not welcome in these parts....full text
Avclub“The blues is a chair,” John Lennon once told Rolling Stone. “Not a design for a chair, or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music.” The music and legacy of Woody Guthrie is another kind of chair. Too many singers, songwriters, would-be troubadours, and wannabe martyrs to name have sat in it and made indelible (or forgettable) impressions; others have stared at it reverently and tried to replicate every last creaky contour. The latter approach tries to conjure the sepia-tinged Guthrie of the collective imagination into reality. But the former, at its most successful, makes old songs breathe again in newer, different times.
It says a lot about what Billy Bragg and Wilco were able to accomplish with a stack of unreleased Guthrie lyrics on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue and 2000’s Mermaid Avenue Vol. II that the new box-set reissue—packaged with a disc of outtakes and the 1999 making-of documentary Man In The Sand—seems as much of a salute to the tribute-makers as it does to the tributee. Guthrie gained a new generation of listeners when the original Mermaid Avenue became a surprise hit, and the box set (timed in conjunction with what would’ve been Guthrie’s 100th birthday) promises to do the same. But Mermaid Avenue was even more crucial to Bragg and Wilco, producing some of the best (and best-known) songs of the artists’ careers: The supernaturally beautiful “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” for Bragg, and the sing-along live favorite “California Stars” and breathtaking ballad “One By One” for Wilco. Mermaid Avenue may have given new life to Guthrie’s legacy, but the songs themselves belong equally to his interpreters....full text
PitchforkWith the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations reviving interest in American protest music over the last six months, it seems inevitable that Woody Guthrie would enjoy a resurgence in popularity and relevance-- and just in time for what would have been his 100th birthday. The Okie folkie's example has guided many musicians as they set the 99% to song: Tom Morello wandered Zuccotti Park strumming "This Land Is Your Land", which won something called the Occupy Wall Street Award from MTV. Others, including Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, have debuted starkly acoustic, highly rhetorical songs squarely in the Guthrie vein, suggesting that the OWS generation (or, more precisely, the pre-OWS generation with closer ties to the 1960s folkies like Dylan, who considered Woody a secular saint) equates Guthrie strictly with protest music and protest music strictly with Guthrie. On one level it might seem like a colossal failure of imagination: By devising a form of dissent music that relies exclusively on historical examples rather than on the leader-less ethos of OWS, these artists not only dilute their dissent but grasp only one facet of the multi-faceted Guthrie. If you weren't familiar with him, you might think Guthrie was some humorless scold who spoke only in grand pronouncements against The Man....full text
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