Last Friday, I once again attempted to solve the annual dilemma: what’s the right American music to play on the 4th? And, again this year, much to the appreciation of my house guests, I’m sure, I kept my copy of “The Best of Sousa” on the shelf. But I did pull out a live recording of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, of course — there’s no better American roots music than New Orleans-style jazz. Which, once that played, led me to pick out “Nice Work” by trombonist Vic Dickenson, and the compilation “Our New Orleans,” a great gumbo of regional music released by Nonesuch as a fundraiser after Katrina. Another favorite I played was “Parades and Panoramas,” a crackerjack collection of 25 songs from Carl Sandburg’s legendary American Songbag recorded by “modern folk” (whatever that means) musician Dan Zanes. If you don’t know any of these, I suggest you consider them for your celebration next year.
But the true joy this year was rediscovering the wonders of Woody Guthrie and the great collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco that produced the “Mermaid Avenue” recordings. I listened to both CDs over and over, when they were first released in 1998 and 2000, but put them aside eventually, as my interests wandered. In the 10 years or so since then I have occasionally returned to them, cherry-picking some songs from both Volume I, which was well-received and earned a Grammy nomination, and Volume II, which was more of the same, but still very good. So it was a nice treat to pull them out again, play them in full, and be reminded of what I had been missing.
The idea behind the project, started by Guthrie’s daughter, was to mine the hundreds and hundreds of lyrics that were left without melodies, which died with Guthrie in 1967, and bring them to life for a new audience. British folk-punker Bragg and alt-country rockers Wilco were tasked with providing a contemporary sound to fill in the gaps. The unlikely pairing proved a winning combination. I was already a fan of Guthrie and Bragg in 1998, and aware of their musical lineage, but these recordings brought Wilco to my attention.
The formula was simple: Songwriting credits are shared equally between the musicians, with Bragg and Wilco supporting each other here and there and trading off at the mike. As a result, the full collection provides a nice representation of Guthrie’s canon: political broadsides, such as “I Guess I Planted” and “Eisler on the Go”; ballads both funny (“Walt Whitman’s Niece”) and woefully serious (“The Unwelcome Guest”); songs of love and longing, like “Way Over Yonder” (with Natalie Merchant — remember her?) and “Ingrid Bergman”; and hymns of praise for Americana (“Christ for President” and “Joe Dimaggio”). The amazing thing is that nearly all the cuts are as good as or better than Guthrie’s best-known. The only true disappointment is not knowing what Guthrie had in mind for each of his songs, or what he would think of their new clothing.
If you don’t know either Billy Bragg or Wilco, take this as an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. Wilco’s 2007 release, “Sky Blue Sky,” was a slower, folkier departure for the band and a return to form for lead singer Jeff Tweedy, who got his start as half of the ground-breaking trio, Uncle Tupelo. It’s a good summer-evening-on-the-patio sound and I spun it a lot last year. Bragg’s newest, “Mr. Love & Justice,” released in April of this year, continues his troubadorian ways — a nice mix, as the title suggests, of his poetics and politics.
And, by jingo, go get “Mermaid Avenue” — either volume, or both — it’s your patriotic duty.