Ashes & diamonds

Woody Guthrie, the American Dust Bowl troubadour, rambled around migrant camps and union picket lines in the 1930s and '40s singing about Depression-era woes and struggles. His guitar was inscribed, "This machine kills fascists."

In tunes like "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie rhapsodized about the rich bounty of the country, but he also composed songs of common courage, such as "Union Maid," written in the face of violent labor conflicts.

Although 50 years and an ocean separates Billy Bragg, the English post-punk, urban folk singer, from Oklahoma-born Guthrie, the recent release of Bragg's Mermaid Avenue album overcomes time and distance. The collection features a unique collaboration between the music of Bragg and the American rock band Wilco (who spring, ironically enough, from the American roots music movement crystallized by the publication No Depression) together with never-before-recorded Guthrie lyrics.

Mermaid Avenue is the street in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn where Woody settled down with his wife and kids following the hectic years of union organizing and World War II. The advancement of the neurological disorder Huntington's Disease ended Guthrie's recording career in 1947, but he continued writing until he was too weak to hold a pencil. He died in 1967 at age 55, leaving behind a rich legacy of recorded music, but also thousands of lyrics without music.

The intergenerational merging of the talents of Guthrie, Bragg and Wilco resuscitates songs about love, life and labor that had come perilously close to being lost.

The Metro Times spoke to Bragg from his home in east London about the album and his forthcoming trip to Detroit.

Metro Times: Who was Woody Guthrie?

Billy Bragg: The Woody Guthrie we all know was one of the great singer-songwriters of the folk revival, certainly its most famous exponent. For the influence he had on Bob Dylan, for that alone, he deserves to be immortalized . . .

Before he became ill, in the years after World War II, he lived in Coney Island and wrote songs almost every day. He built up a huge archive of songs, but didn't write down any music for them. He had music, but he kept the tunes in his head. I do this, too. If I record a song, you'll know the tune, but if I don't, there's no record of how the music goes.

Unfortunately, when Woody died, the music for all the songs in the archive -- and there's over 2,500 complete lyrics -- was lost. His daughter, Arlo's sister, Nora, approached me in 1995 with the view of looking at these manuscripts and writing music for them -- in a way, collaborating with her father.

MT: Why, of all the musicians in the world, did Nora Guthrie choose Billy Bragg?

Bragg: My theory is that Woody and I have some things in common inasmuch as we both sing about unions, for instance, and there aren't many contemporary people around who sing about that. Also, I think we had similar experiences between 1930s America where the culture was as politically charged as it was in 1980s England during the Thatcher years. Although the situations were different, I think Nora recognized that her father and I came to similar conclusions about working for a better society, and perhaps the best way to do that is through organized labor.

MT: Your commitment to the labor movement is well known. Rumor even has it that you once drank a glass of beer containing the ashes of a famous labor organizer, Joe Hill. Is this true?

Bragg: It's true, actually. Joe Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 after a frame-up trial. Also, he was a great union songwriter and wrote many labor songs. When he died, he was cremated, and they had asked him where he wanted to be buried, and he answered, "Anywhere but in Utah," where he had been executed by a firing squad.

So what the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), the old Wobblies, decided to do was to send his ashes to every union branch in the United States. They put them in these little packets and mailed them out. In one state, the FBI impounded Joe's ashes, since he was obviously still a radical and still dangerous even in ash form.

They stayed in some FBI storeroom in Washington, D.C., until they were discovered in the late '80s -- a small packet of a couple of ounces of Joe's ashes. The government sent them back to the IWW headquarters in Chicago. The union, which still exists, had a debate in their paper over what to do with the ashes. Abbie Hoffman, of all people, wrote in and suggested that they should be eaten by people like myself and Michelle Shocked. He said when we die, people should eat our ashes, and so on and so forth.

Someone showed me the article which I thought was a typical Abbie Hoffman kind of wheeze, but while I'm doing a gig in Chicago, these IWW members turn up with this little white packet of stuff and say, "This is it, this is Joe Hill's ashes and we want you to eat them."

It was a little bit distasteful, but it was only a tiny bit, not like a handful, just a tiny fragment, and I washed it down with some union beer, if I remember rightly.

MT: So, does Joe Hill's spirit course through your veins?

Bragg: I guess it does. They gave me a little fragment to pass on to Michelle Shocked which I folded up inside a 1933 edition of the Little Red Song Book which has so many of Hill's songs in it. I still have it somewhere here in the house, but I still haven't sent it to Michelle.

MT: How did you link up with Wilco?

Bragg: I felt very strongly there had to be a band on this project. Nora's original suggestion was something more along the lines of the Traveling Wilburys, where you'd have different well-known artists, but I thought the important thing was to focus on the lyrics themselves because, really, they're the voice of Woody Guthrie, although he's no longer with us. Until his songs in the archive are appreciated for the things he still has to say, I didn't want to get too much in the way of them. I thought if we had a number of different artists, it would sound like a tribute record. I don't mind tribute albums, but they focus too much on the artists rather than the person whose songs you're singing.

I looked around and Wilco seemed to me to be a band that had the depth and understanding of pre-rock 'n' roll music. Several of them were in a band called Uncle Tupelo whose roots in the music they were influenced by goes back to the turn of the century in your country. I also knew enough about Jeff Tweedy, the main guy in Wilco, that if I suggested this project to him he would realize the unique opportunity that it offered.

And, right enough, he came on board, and went to the Guthrie archive himself and chose songs he thought reflected his and Woody's feelings, and ones he wanted to write music for.

MT: Were you nervous at all that you were rendering Guthrie's lyrics in a way that would have made him happy?

Bragg: I had that feeling when Nora first approached me, but I realized two things: one, the strength of the material -- it's very powerful, and Woody's voice is very strong in there. It's very, very evocative of what he's trying to get at; he doesn't beat about the bush. And, also, the huge number of songs. If I had been handed the last dozen or so, I would have felt under much more pressure. Knowing that these were a fragment of a huge archive, I felt comfort in that even if I did my best and everybody thought it was useless, there was still enough for someone else to have another go at it.

Actually, I think it comes across as, rather than a Billy Bragg project or a Wilco project, or even a Woody Guthrie record, it comes across as the sum of those parts.

Nora encouraged me to use the lyrics that added something to the idea of Woody Guthrie, rather than looking for more songs about dust or another "This Is Your Land; This Is My Land." She encouraged me to pick out songs that reflected other aspects of his songwriting ability. So, there are love songs, songs about gender politics, and there are union songs, as you would expect.

The title of the record should really be Nora Guthrie Presents Billy Bragg and Wilco, and I know Jeff Tweedy would agree that would be a more fitting title. Mermaid Avenue was her suggestion for a title.

MT: Where was Arlo Guthrie during all of this?

Bragg: Arlo was around. These lyrics have been in the Guthrie household for years. It was Nora and Arlo's mum, Marjorie, Woody's second wife, who collected and kept them. I don't think it should be expected of Arlo to always be the person to deal with his father's legacy. Woody deserves more than that. It shouldn't just be Arlo or Pete Seeger's job to keep Woody's name alive. It's really about the next generation coming along and passing on Woody's tunes to people that are younger than us.

I'm 40 and a generation younger than who you might have expected to do this -- Bob Dylan or Arlo. They were the people who knew Woody. Bands of our age, and Wilco is younger than me, can take something like Mermaid Avenue and, with this new stuff, pass on his ideas into places where pure folk music usually doesn't go.

MT: Why are you coming to Detroit to support a newspaper strike that is now over three years old? Certainly, there are labor disputes all across the globe.

Bragg: There's already a connection. I did a benefit for them a couple of years ago in Detroit. We also had a long, long dispute in our country involving the Liverpool dockers, which is now ended, but got a great deal of support from U.S. longshoremen. Part of taking part in the labor movement is expressing international solidarity.

Also, I've always felt very close to Detroit for a couple of other reasons. First off, I come from a Ford's company town. Where I grew up in east London, Ford is the main employer. When I was a kid, you'd hear words like Dearborn and Ypsilanti. And, second, I've always been a huge fan of Tamla-Motown. The words Detroit, Michigan, always had a certain resonance to me when I was growing up, for where great music came from.

So, it's about international solidarity and keeping in touch with the grass roots of the movement, which is important if we're going to try to change the world by organizing ordinary people on an ordinary level, rather than relying on political parties to change the world for us. Peter Werbe is a frequent contributor to the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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