Happy 20th Anniversary to Billy Bragg & Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, originally released June 23, 1998.
There’s an anecdote in Bob Dylan’s 2004 book, Chronicles, Volume One, where Dylan visits Woody Guthrie’s home in Coney Island. He’s there to get songbooks, full of material that is left unrecorded due to Guthrie’s declining health. In an alleged stroke of very bad luck, Guthrie’s wife Marjorie is not home, so Dylan leaves empty-handed, depriving the world of a potential collaboration between two of the greatest American folk artists.
“At My Window Sad and Lonely,” a track from Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue is Dylan-esque. Jeff Tweedy is at his raspiest and the production is straight from Highway 61 Revisited. It’s clear why Dylan would have been the first choice (hypothetical or otherwise). But fortunately, in some miracle of music, the combination of Billy Bragg’s forceful guitar and Wilco’s versatile, Americana sound created a shockingly good tribute to one of America’s most influential musicians.
Mermaid Avenue is based on Woody Guthrie’s unpublished writing from his time in New York, living on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, with deteriorating health. Compiled by his third wife Marjorie and daughter Nora, the pair first approached Billy Bragg about recording his own versions of Guthrie’s songs. Bragg invited Wilco to join the project and the recording came together quickly.
Sharing Guthrie’s progressive political sensibilities, Billy Bragg was a natural fit. Wilco, with their popular alt-country style steeped in traditional folk, added Americana, a genre Guthrie helped to shape. Not only does Mermaid Avenue honor Guthrie’s legacy, but we get some of Bragg and Wilco’s best work.
“California Stars” became one of Wilco’s most popular songs. It’s a waltzing country track with steel guitar and violin, coupled with lyrics of a man feeling homesick for somewhere faraway. “One By One,” like “California Stars,” sounds like a very good Wilco song. Guitar twangs and wistful vocals are a gentler touch than Guthrie was known for, but the song swims by beautifully.
In a shining moment for Bragg, he pairs up with Natalie Merchant for the exceptionally beautiful “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” The lilting, folky lullaby sounds much softer than a young Guthrie, exposing a side not expressed in music later in his life. Similarly romantic, “Ingrid Bergman” is a charming love song, with just Bragg and his guitar.
The quieter moments are made even more delightful when paired with rowdier rock reimaginings of Guthrie’s songwriting. “Christ For President,” is a raucous political anthem, disappointingly prescient decades later. Picked-string, jug band style shares the enthusiasm of “Hoodoo Voodoo,” a punk rock kids song, but this time around the party is for grown-ups. A joyful celebration of Union-won victories, “I Guess I Planted” is a hymn for the working class of Guthrie’s day, spruced up with pop production for a new generation.
It’s pretty amazing that a treasure trove of writing from one of America’s greatest musicians would be found and made available in the way Mermaid Avenue was. So it could feel like the stakes were high for this project. The natural chemistry of Guthrie’s lyrics from decades ago, paired with two of the ‘90s foremost folk musicians feels almost miraculous. With a great debt owed to the careful preservation of Woody Guthrie’s work, Wilco and Billy Bragg created an outstanding modern folk album.