"Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions" by Billy Bragg and Wilco

Spirituality & Health Magazine
reviewed by John Malkin

Fifteen years ago Nora Guthrie, the daughter of political folk legend Woody Guthrie, asked British singer Billy Bragg if he’d create music for some of her father’s thousand unrecorded songs. “He was keeping track of himself through songs instead of journals,” explains Nora in the liner notes. This new release is the third and final CD in the Mermaid Avenue project, which totals almost 50 songs. Lyrics are by Woody Guthrie with music by Bragg. Vocals are performed by Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, Natalie Merchant, and others.

Bragg was only ten years old when Guthrie died in 1967, but the two folksingers have much in common; both pen songs that strike a terrific balance between social revolution and the ups and downs of human relationships. On 12 studio albums, Bragg has masterfully mixed pop and politics, and the collaborations on Mermaid Avenue maintain a Guthrie sensibility while being fully Bragg. The music is energetic with smartly crafted melodies and song titles like “Christ for President” and “The Jolly Banker.”

Guthrie’s sweet lyrics for the song “Ingrid Bergman” reveal his affection for the actress and is a natural companion to Bragg’s own song about his “obsession with the young Susannah York,” from Bragg’s 1988 Workers Playtime album. On the political side, Woody famously inscribed on his guitar “This machine kills fascists,” a reference to the idea that artists play a role in using words and music to stop wars and create peace. Guthrie’s cultural landscape encompassed hobos, the dust bowl, socialism, communism, and the solidarity of organized labor. “He handles [political] issues very similarly onstage to the way that I imagine my dad did,” says Nora Guthrie of Bragg, in an interview on the DVD that comes with Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. As Bragg has sung, “Start your own revolution and cut out the middle man!”

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