Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Doing It For The Little Guy. Or, How Woody Guthrie Was Rescued From Sainthood on Mermaid Avenue

Mermaid Avenue, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote tunes for lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s archive, was recently re-released in a 3CD box set, along with a DVD of the documentary Man In The Sand. It’s a fine record, and there are some great songs on the third disc of previously unreleased material. I spoke to Billy Bragg about the album.
What was the original idea?
Wilco, with Jeff Tweedy, left; and Billy Bragg (far right)
Nora (Guthrie) wanted to do was to make Woody into a three-dimensional character. Her concern was that he’d become an icon, almost like you couldn’t get to the real man. She felt the lyrics in the archive said more about Woody than “This Land Is Your Land”.
So it was like you were writing a biography through his song?
We were connecting with him. Very few of the songs we chose were written in the 1930s. They were almost all written in the 1940s. That means they were written in New York. It’s an urban Woody Guthrie. He’s not the guy riding the railroads.
It’s like Robert Johnson – everyone thinks of the delta blues, yet he could play any style.
Woody’s the same – you always think of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, Grapes of Wrath. That was part of Woody, but… are you familiar with On The Town? Sinatra and Gene Kelly in 1948. They chase some women out to Coney Island. Woody lived there in 1948. So, yes, put him in Grapes of Wrath, but him in On The Town too. That’s what Nora was talking about – the Woody Guthrie who wanted to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of a volcano.
How does Woody Guthrie’s reputation stand now?
Guthrie: "He was the first alternative songwriter".
Nora’s done an incredible thing by opening the gates to a new Woody Guthrie. I met her at the 80th birthday celebrations in Central Park in New York. Then he still belonged to Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and that Bob Dylan folk revival thing. But with Mermaid Avenue she bust that open and brought in a new generation of people who came to appreciate Woody as a songwriter, rather than as an icon. I brought in a younger generation who were into Wilco and alt country. But also an older generation of greybeards who were into Woody and Pete started turning up at my gigs. Nora brought me into the family.
Why was there so much unreleased material?
Really, just because we had so much stuff. It wasn’t because we didn’t think it was good enough. If they’d turned round and said ‘look we’ve done two great Grammy nominated albums, shall we put another one out?’ we could have done it. But Wilco had moved on and I’d moved on. So really it was a matter of always knowing that the songs were there. And in the meantime the albums had reverted to me, to my ownership. I wanted to get them re-released, and I didn’t think the film had been seen widely enough either. So I started talking to Nora, and to Wilco, and said maybe we should try and put out the complete sessions, what do you reckon? And particularly since Jay Bennett has passed away, as well, some of Jay’s best work is on this record. Jay Bennett was a cat who could play anything. You could throw ideas at him and he’d get hold of them really quickly. He was a great collaborator, Jay. During the sessions, Jeff Tweedy never quite got onto European time when we were in Ireland – which was fine, because when you’re in the studio you work day and you work night. But there were times when we were in the studio and he wasn’t there. So when he wasn’t there, they were kinda my band. Just in the sense that they wanted to play, you know? The thing about Mermaid Avenue is you can play the song any which way you like. Let’s play this one like Tom Waits; let’s play this one like Chuck Berry; let’s play this one like Metallica. And Wilco, those guys were really up for that sort of thing.
Partly that was why I approached them, because I thought Being There was such a great record, and they could clearly play in any style, and that’s what I needed. There are outtakes of tracks that are completely different styles, that haven’t been released. I would say they’re proper outtakes, they’re not the sort of thing I’d feel comfortable putting on something like this. I wanted these tracks to be the ones people hadn’t heard. But we had three or four goes at some of those songs.
I hate to draw comparisons, but it’s what Dylan and the Band were doing in the Basement Tapes. They took those old folk songs, that had deep roots, and they messed around with them and made a great record. We were able to apply that same idea to these songs, although we were perhaps more radical, because we had the whole history of rock music between when Woody wrote the songs, and us, whereas Dylan was quite early on in that tradition. That’s the trick with these Woody Guthrie compilations, is not to be too reverent to the material. Don’t worry about Woody’s words – they’re going to work. Bring yourself in – do what you think he would do. Do what you think you should do. Meet him half way.
There’s a hundred different ways to write a song. And every way is the right way, as long as you end up with a song. Some of those songs that Woody wrote, who knows what tunes he had for them? Maybe we were miles off, maybe we were close, I don’t know. But ultimately it’s what the guy was saying that matters – not the way he was saying it. And what he was saying is preserved. We were fortunate enough to put a frame around his artistic endeavours.
Did you learn anything about the way he wrote songs?
Well, I’ll tell you what I did learn from him – that the enemy for those of us that want to make a better world is cynicism, not capitalism or conservatism. There’s not a cynical lyric in Woody’s writing. He said himself, I hate songs that make people feel sad about themselves, I hate songs that put people down, I hate songs that make people feel there’s no hope. I learned that off of him – cos I was a great fan of the more cynical end of songwriting, be it Dylan or Elvis Costello. And connecting with Woody, what I learned as a songwriter was to be able to see the superstructure of the song, finding the rhythm in it by looking at it. Not finding the tune, but finding the metre.
The film alluded to conflict between you and Jeff Tweedy – what was that about?
It was a very simple conflict that happens almost in every band, at the end of every album. I think Jay Bennett alludes to it when he’s interviewed. It’s who is in charge of the production. It was a simple case that Jeff Tweedy and I had never made a record in which somebody else had a say in what the songs sounded like at the end.
I don’t think it’s the defining issue of Mermaid Avenue. To me the defining issue was bringing Woody to a new audience in a new way. We all kept focused on that idea. We were all working for the little guy. And I’d like to think, 20 years after that concert I was at with Pete Seeger and Arlo, that Woody now is seen in a more contemporary light as a great songwriter, and not someone up on a pedestal; as someone who was flawed, who wasn’t a great father, who did shag around, but who equally wrote great songs. He was probably the first alternative songwriter.