Sample Chapter: Woody Guthrie

and Mermaid Avenue

Ain’t Dead Yet

Radio Silence, March 31, 2014

IN THE EARLY 1990s, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of the famous songwriter, came across a shoebox full of her father’s letters. Leafing through his notes, she soon found more boxes and was quickly overwhelmed. “I had just discovered that my father had written more song lyrics than any of us could ever imagine. Over 3,000 when I finally did the count,” she wrote in her liner notes to Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. Suddenly Guthrie’s legend began talking an entirely new language, saying things even his daughter never suspected. “I had just discovered that he had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant,” she continued, “that he felt sorry for Hanns Eisler, that he was a proud lush and a comfortable luster, that he believed in flying saucers, that he was homesick for California, that he even knew who Joe DiMaggio was, let alone wrote a song about him, or that he once made out with a girl in a tree hollow when, as a kid, he bragged, ‘There ain’t nobody that can sing like me.” She blushed at reading her father’s intimate creative diaries. “There’s maybe… three people that had ever looked through these files and boxes of my dad’s stuff that had been sitting around for forty years,” she told an interviewer. But alongside that came the shock of the sheer volume of work Guthrie had left behind, which more than tripled his already prodigious output between 1939 and 1952, when he began to wither from Huntington’s disease.

Nora decided to seek out musicians to help extend all this new material. The leftist punk-rocker Billy Bragg had already been poking around the Smithsonian archives, chatting up archivist Jeff Place. Although British, Bragg appealed to Nora Guthrie’s counterintuitive impulses.

“One of the things I really liked about Billy was he didn’t come with a lot of baggage,” Nora explained. “And I don’t mean that in a critical sense, but he really didn’t know that much about Woody. Here we’re discovering lyrics about topics that were so un-Dust Bowl balladeer, un-Grand Coulee Dam, even un-folk song…. So I wanted to work with someone who didn’t have a lot of history with Woody in one sense and didn’t have a lot of shoulds; what Woody should sound like, what Woody Guthrie should be like, what a Woody Guthrie album should be.”

At first, Bragg simply assumed that anything by Guthrie had PROPERTY OF BOB DYLAN stamped on it. But Nora persuaded him that Guthrie’s legacy deserved a new generation of artists and listeners. Her approach had more than a dash of inspiration: What could be more predictable than Dylan setting Guthrie’s words?

Bragg suggested Wilco as collaborators, and recording took place over a heated two months in Chicago and Dublin between late 1997 and early 1998. Nobody expected things to move so quickly, much less forty-seven tracks to appear from the improbable matchup.

“Billy and Wilco single-handedly burst through time itself,” Nora said, “altering every previous perception anyone ever had about Woody Guthrie —his look, his language, his tone, his rhythm, his purpose, his heart and soul. All of our thoughts about him have now been forever altered in some way.”

When the first volume of Mermaid Avenue appeared later in 1998, critics unanimously dubbed it a classic while noting its unlikely provenance. The project could easily have shrunk against expectations. Bragg and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had never worked together before, and in the wrong hands, re-engaging Guthrie’s conversation could have come off strained and overly reverential.

But Mermaid Avenue’s opening track plunks the listener down into a sprawling reverie: “Walt Whitman’s Niece” crashes a party—you hear a sailor lead a rowdy sing-along, trying hard to sound sober, boasting about poems he can’t remember while reclining on the lap of Walt Whitman’s niece. The album started by puncturing Guthrie’s hoary legend and got better from there. The lyrics predated this melody by decades, and yet the result sounds almost pre- ordained, as if baked into some parallel rock history. It also reveals Guthrie’s previously invisible inner life—an expressive, gaming romantic, fearlessly carnal, The lyrics predated this melody by decades, and yet the result sounds almost pre-ordained, as if baked into some parallel rock history. It also reveals Guthrie’s previously invisible inner life—an expressive, gaming romantic, fearlessly carnal, entranced by the female aura yet blissfully free of macho pretense. Along with the lovely “California Stars,” “The Unwelcome Guest,” and the proto-feminist “She Came Along to Me,” this first Mermaid album rebooted the conversation music had been having with Guthrie ever since Bob Dylan reset “1913 Massacre” on his 1962 debut, giving it maudlin “Song to Woody” lyrics. In a track such as “She Came Along to Me,” you hear Guthrie’s populism, to be sure, but also an epic romanticism, both flamboyant and earthy, of a stripe that has long eluded the mighty Dylan.

Had it stopped there, the Mermaid Avenue project would have gone down as one of the great cycles in displaced American songbooks. Then a second Mermaid Avenue volume appeared in 2000 that spilled to overflowing with another fifteen tracks—including “Remember the Mountain Bed,” “Secret of the Sea,” and “Joe DiMaggio Done It Again”—by turns cackling and sober, delirious and severe, invoking historical sweep without a trace of nostalgia. More recently, for 2012’s Guthrie centenary, Nonesuch released a third and final album—seventeen tracks —for a set complete with the Man in the Sand DVD documentary. Unlike the occasional dribs and drabs on some of the better box sets, this closing disc harvests at least as many classics as the first two. The complete sessions finally provide the larger journey on which these musicians traveled, from breakthrough to conquest, as if new volumes of Guthrie’s autobiography, long unfinished, have finally come to light.

I spoke with Bragg recently about how the project came about, and why it took so long to complete. Chatty and animated while retelling the story, Bragg still sounds as baffled by the process as the results. By draping traditional frames with contemporary styles, the musicians felt their way through this music as they played. That sense of ongoing discovery informed everything that came out. “That’s kind of what we were trying to do without thinking about it too much,” Bragg said. “It’s not the sort of thing you can discuss; you can only play that kind of idea. For instance, at the very end of ‘She Came Along to Me,’ [Wilco’s] Jay Bennett and Bob [Egan]… started quoting ‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominos. If you listen, right at the very end, the solo goes really high. The two of them were smiling, and they both knew what they were doing ’cause they were doing it live.”

Guthrie wrote constantly on anything within reach—notebooks, napkins, tabletops, and magazine covers, and a lot of what spilled out of him defies his persona. As Bragg put it, “Shake the Guthrie archives, and history falls out,” and that’s how the songs sound—as if Guthrie’s conversation with American life, its politics and everyday sagas, has suddenly come alive and asked your opinion. This new Guthrie leaps from traditional folkie garb into a larger wardrobe of the blues, love songs, gospel, and country-and-western style laments (minus the self- pity). That lead track alone, “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” lopes along with a lusting rock’n’roll smirk, a dandy new suit Guthrie might have worn. Among many other surprises, the Guthrie of Mermaid Avenue becomes uncle to Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan and the 1960s counterculture that sprang from their influence. Bragg even wrote “My Flying Saucer” in conscious Buddy Holly style, with rolling electric guitars; you could imagine it segueing straight into “Peggy Sue.” Like a lot of great disruptive art, Mermaid Avenue re-engages this musical history and makes it sound as though many unrelated forces had been aligning in a new direction all along.

Mermaid‘s first two volumes passed into legend long before this third volume appeared, but it would be hard to puzzle out which disc holds more treasure. Disc three features a seething rocker, “Be Kind to the Boy on the Road,” with uneven meters that vault into a harrowing falsetto chorus; and “My Thirty Thousand,” an account of the race riot that broke out following Paul Robeson’s appearance at the Peekskill, New York, golf course in 1949 (the Peekskill Riots). Neither track tips anything to fate; both sound seized by the same moral imperatives. That gauzy Guthrie myth—Johnny Appleseed with a guitar—
obscures a more complicated, richly layered, and expansive stylistic reach than his best-known songs imply.

When Billy Bragg cuts open the silence with his naked electric guitar in “Ought to Be Satisfied Now,” his strings moan and burn, enveloping the lyrics compounded resentments: “You took my silver, you took my gold. / You made me believe in every lie that you told.” There’s a very real tension driving the sound, the best kind of tension a singer can grasp—he wishes so hard that he’d written it that he becomes one with its purpose, as though a waking dream of Guthrie himself sings through him. The track sounds drawn from a well of iconic alternative-folk hits written around those themes, such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Pennies from Heaven.”

To our ears, of course, the lyrics’ abandonment sounds like our own: How many underwater mortgages and incompetent venture-capitalist presidential campaigns does it take to shame a failed banking industry? The song doesn’t answer—it simply rolls on, fueled not by disparagement but by Guthrie’s peculiarly idealistic realism, the sanest reaction possible to the lopsided economic policies that float bank fraud and currency manipulation as millions of able workers go jobless. How did Guthrie, who wrote about the biggest conflicts of the first half of the century, become canonized in the second half, flattened out for too many listeners into a postcard? This back-and-forth with Guthrie’s poetry, his vast affection for the land and people, and his implacable optimism make more sense when you pore back over how his story got passed down to us, first through Dylan, then others. It turns out to be one of those songless melodies we all recognize, coated in layers of our own imagining.

The plain facts of Guthrie’s life first came to light with Joe Klein’s 1980 biography. Guthrie had written “You’d Ought to Be Satisfied Now” back in 1939, after a decade of rambling around from Oklahoma and a domestic stint with three children in Pampa, Texas. As a boy, he watched his father Charlie go bust, his older sister Clara literally go up in flames, his mother go insane, the Dust Bowl engulf the land, and the Depression suck up the country’s wealth and way of life. When he finally hitched the rails out to California, following the promise of decent jobs with tens of thousands of other stragglers, he became known as a handy sign painter and a songwriter, the kind who put these experiences into songs to which everybody could sing along. He’s remembered for “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” (famous for the line “Some will rob you with a six-gun, / And some with a fountain pen”), but in his own time he was known more as an entertainer, a radio-show host, and a columnist for the Daily Worker.

A lot of nonsense gets written about how Guthrie wasn’t a “legitimate” songwriter, and how he stole tunes from everywhere and never bothered to write so much as a bridge for “Pretty Boy Floyd.” This mistakes the way oral traditions work and overlooks how literate musicians still patronize folk cultures by insisting that they be measured against classically trained methods. Guthrie cared about writing down his songs only to the extent it might help him remember some verses—he cared more about how music’s impact could inspire change and social justice. That we still sing his songs argues for just how right he was. The folk circles he traveled in had a perfectly sturdy network of ears and memories, and “professional” songwriters would spend a long time catching up with songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Jesus Christ,” and Guthrie’s many children’s songs (“Do Re Mi,” “Riding in My Car”).

In a story most schoolchildren know, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” after he heard Kate Smith sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” one too many times over the radio in 1940. Guthrie’s early draft spilled out as an answer song: “God Blessed America for Me.” He knew if the message was strong enough, and enough people joined in, the oral culture he traveled in could rival radio’s reach. And it did.

Guthrie’s musical ideal places communal above commercial value. Kids singing “This Land Is Your Land” together proves far more meaningful to sustaining a democracy than Berlin’s royalties. Where Berlin worked in a literate, professional, and commercial tradition, Guthrie donated his whole catalog to the larger slipstream of American life, knowing we’d all be the richer.

Through Dylan, most of us understand Guthrie’s “folksiness” as inseparable from his social activism. He was, in nearly everything he said and did, a political figure beyond all else, even as he rambled along from job to job for anything that might make a buck. His music, in fact, never earned him much until after he died, and his estate survives largely on donations. When a nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan paid him a visit in Greystone Park State Hospital after reading the ironically titled memoir Bound for Glory, which cross-weaves autobiography with barnstorming fictions, Guthrie had assumed the status of legend even though much of his material would have to wait for history to catch up.

He died at age fifty-five of Huntington’s chorea in 1967, after more than a decade of the degenerative illness, and a few months later the folk tribe he inspired held a memorial concert for him in Carnegie Hall, organized by his manager Harold Leventhal. Dylan chose this event to return to the stage after his eighteen-month Woodstock retreat, recuperating from a motorcycle accident. This seemingly endless absence from public life inspired rumors—Dylan was dead, paralyzed, mute, would never sing again—even as his stage presence on the live tribute album displayed health and humility.

Dylan gave them Guthrie’s “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” in rowdy arrangements that suggested how rock might reconsider Guthrie’s image. This little-known set posed riddles Dylan would keep until he published his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, which detailed his pursuit of folk history and how Guthrie’s work fed his own intrigues. But in saying goodbye to Guthrie, Dylan unwittingly closed a chapter instead of reopening it.
Dylan’s Guthrie set holds up, keeps revealing new secrets, and from Mermaid Avenue’s vantage, provides another clue to how Guthrie’s ghost looms over more than just folk music. Greil Marcus described Dylan’s version of “Grand Coulee
Dam” as “a drunken rockabilly rave-up at the party thrown by the men who built the thing, on the night they opened the spillway for the first time.” The 1960s heard the Guthrie it wanted to hear, and used him for its purposes; and in our own era of collateralized debt swaps, we’re adapting him, as well.

Another strand of Mermaid Avenue‘s resonance comes through its historical specificity. The further Woody Guthrie recedes into history, the bigger he gets, the more his words signify. Although he lived the mere physical part of his life between 1912 and 1967, Mermaid’s best moments make it seem as if his legacy constitutes the far larger half. Bragg told me they were all reading Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus’ 1997 exploration of Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, the fabled tracks made just before those musicians stepped on the Guthrie tribute stage, recorded in seclusion between 1966’s Blonde on Blonde and 1967’s John Wesley Harding. Many of these numbers spread underground on an early bootleg called Great White Wonder, extending Dylan’s persona as reclusive mystic and his backup band’s reputation for what we now call Americana music. If The Basement Tapes commprise the grail, the complete Mermaid Avenue set might be the next generatin’s sequel, as told by an avowed socialist fronting a Midwestern alt-country band.

“And we kind of felt, I think, that there was something similar that we were doing,” Bragg said. “Because Wilco was quite familiar with all The Basement Tapes, not just the album that was released [in 1975]. If you heard the complete Basement Tapes, many of the tracks are old-timey tracks. They’re all either folk songs or they’re Carter Family songs or something like that. They’re playing these old songs, but they’re bringing them up to date. And I think that we felt that was a similar thing to what we were doing. The Band didn’t play how the Carter Family played. When you heard The Band play, you knew these guys had heard Little Richard, and we were kind of the same. Although we felt we were doing a similar thing to The Band, we wanted to bring Woody with us to the cusp of the twenty-first century.”

Bragg explained how Marcus’ prose helped steer them toward the music’s tight yet easy gait. (Has any critic ever received such high praise?) Marcus completed the circle by raving about Mermaid Avenue in Rolling Stone. A later paperback edition of Marcus’ book was retitled after a phrase Dylan used to describe folk’s early brutality: The Old, Weird America. This points out the split in our conceptions of Guthrie—if he came from a distant past, at far removed from our overwrought corporate culture, why do his words rebound as so contemporary? Doesn’t Dylan’s “old, weird America” persist, a straight line traveling from Guthrie’s time to ours? Would not the random, psychotic violence erupting within our “civilized” modernity have seemed entirely natural to many of our pre-modern storytellers? By thinking about Guthrie’s America as a faded photograph, we miss out on his visionary powers, the ideas that keep his songs both current and universal. In all this material, Guthrie addresses the same fights, tensions, and cultural disputes.

Dylan the rock idol may have upstaged his mentor, but the conversation loomed through all his shifting styles and guises. By 1968, Dylan had conquered rock’n’roll and had begun remaking the music over through acoustic rock ( John Wesley Harding), country (Nashville Skyline), and eventually a return to folk (Blood on the Tracks). His Guthrie songs sounded of a piece with this stylistic arc: Guthrie could have lived to go electric, Dylan seemed to be saying, and nothing we do from here on can rival what Guthrie already accomplished in just over a dozen years’ work.

As important as this work remains, Mermaid Avenue and recent history render Dylan’s idea of Guthrie quaint, a glimpse from a much larger epic. And the Mermaid Avenue project has become a hood ornament for the larger discussion that Nora Guthrie curates with musicians as disparate as The Klezmatics (Happy Joyous Hanukkah and Wonder Wheel, both 2006); Jonatha Brooke (The Works, 2008); and, most notably, the bassist Rob Wasserman (Note of Hope, 2011). Even Jeff Tweedy’s former Uncle Tupelo partner, Jay Farrar, released his own setting of Guthrie’s verse, New Multitudes (2012). A new box set of Guthrie material from the Smithsonian Folkways archives, Woody at 100, compiles many well-known and previously scattered recordings over three albums and an elegantly produced book of essays, strewn with pictures that argue for Guthrie’s wide embrace of every folk art you can imagine—cartoons, signs, collages, paintings, and more fetching verse. Actor Johnny Depp developed House of Earth, one of Guthrie’s unfinished novels, for publication in early 2013. And long before all this, country singer James Talley put out a low-key Guthrie tribute, Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home, in 1999. It’s part of the same conversation that rock has been having with Guthrie since Dylan visited his hospital bed.
Throughout Mermaid Avenue, Bragg and Wilco sound inevitable, the right craftsmen using a master’s words to build new houses. But you’ll listen in vain for earlier work that might hold clues to this breakthrough. The closest might be Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” a stinging Motown tribute of Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986). It’s as if singing Guthrie’s words confers wisdom upon the singer, and the listening involves you in the same process. Hearing

Bragg and Wilco engage Guthrie’s myth, most of your assumptions drop away, and faded black-and-white photographs snap into focus. There are no hazy historical set pieces plodding along, only unwritten endings, plots that suggest a thousand different outcomes, clues to stories yet unrevealed, characters with choices still to make, fortunes to be squandered, romances to be consummated, betrayed, corrupted, dashed, and renewed. Just like the America he journeyed, Guthrie contains multitudes, and each particular song holds epics in miniature. Bragg and Wilco summon this wide-
angle Guthrie with élan—in voices glaring, lustful, arrogant, needy, feckless, bounding, untamable. The tone of “Walt Whitman’s Niece” becomes prophetic—the memory of a wild night is far more seductive and grandiose than the reality. It’s a cousin to Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash” (on The Basement Tapes) for sheer exuberance.

“California Stars” doesn’t even have to underline its irony, since that “land of plenty” lured people from unimaginable dust and death to unimaginable greed and state-sponsored privation. The song admits this and more—in Tweedy’s aching voice, you hear both the promise and the betrayal, the place that made hardship seem all the worse for the glaring contrast with the abundance of the land.

Another unlikely Guthrie theme emerges through his romancing of his second wife, the Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia. Tracks such as “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” “Remember the Mountain Bed,” and “She Came Along to Me” hint at a proto-feminism Guthrie was never known for, and certainly never lived out. (He abandoned his first family to wanderlust.) Lines such as “But I’m sure the women are equal / And they may be ahead of the men” sound like a primer for John Lennon’s “Woman.”

An uncommonly confessional line from “Another Man’s Done Gone” caught Bragg’s attention near the end of recording: “I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere / But I feel like this scribbling might stay.” “As soon as I read that,” Bragg said, “I felt that there’s an opportunity with this song to actually touch base with the little guy by realizing the hope that he has expressed in his song.” Guthrie often tagged his lyrics with little notes or drawings. At the bottom of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” Guthrie wrote:

This song made up by Woody Guthrie, 3520 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn 24, N.Y., March the fifth, wife in town working, daughter in nursery school, jug dry, temperature warmer. A March wind is marching down along the ocean looking at the wreckage that washed in last night.

Bragg kept another pasted to the back of his songbook as he worked:

I made this one up like you see her right here on this action block and I like her just the way she is. But if you want to take her and change her a little bit for the better then by grobs grab ‘er an’ make ‘er happy.

For Bragg, Guthrie’s generous spirit rescues hope itself. “Woody never wrote a cynical song in his life,” Bragg said. “And he helped me to identify cynicism as our greatest enemy. All of us ought to make the world a better place. Not careerism, not conservatism, but cynicism. And worse than that, our own cynicism. Not the cynicism of Rupert Murdoch, not the cynicism of Fox News, our cynicism. And we need to overcome that in order to write songs that inspire people, because if we don’t overcome that we will never inspire people. That’s what I learned.”

Guthrie watched epic bank fraud, held campfire court at Hoovervilles, inveighed against unnecessary unemployment and irrational food-fight politics, yet remained convinced that somehow America’s promises were being kept, if not government-to-citizen, then at least person-to-person. Beyond that, Guthrie intuited what a long road optimism itself can be. As he says in “Walt Whitman’s Niece”:

And it takes a night and a girl
And a book of this kind
A long long time to find its way back…

One exception proves this rule: “Deportee” became a soaring celebration of romantic names when Guthrie wrote about the 1948 plane wreck at Los Gatos that killed thirty-two people (“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita / Adios mis amigos, Jesús y Maria…”). Later set to music by Martin Hoffman, the song was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio, entered Pete Seeger’s set list, and became a lost pearl on The Byrds’ Ballad of Easy Rider in 1969. Even so, its mellifluous outrage fit nicely with prevailing Guthrie myths.

The critic Geoffrey Himes even wrote a fond alternative-reality piece, posted on the Nonesuch website, where Guthrie collaborates with Buddy Holly, they both cheat their fates and wind up being heroes of the counterculture. It’s almost too good not to be true.