Mermaid Avenue was the road where Woody Guthrie lived in New York, and was the name given to the first volume of songs that Billy Bragg and Wilco collaborated on in 1997. The songs were taken from lyrics that Guthrie had written but never recorded, for which there was no known melody, with around 3000 of these songs in the archive of his daughter Nora. Initially Billy Bragg was invited to record the songs and then he invited Wilco to join the project.
Volume one of the sessions was a brilliant album, the differences between the writing style of Bragg and Wilco (principally Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett) added variety but also sat well together. Bragg’s work is more traditional, and closer to the style of Guthrie, with Wilco sounding typical of the Summerteeth era, and both acts produce some of their best work on the album. A second volume followed which featured another fifteen brilliant tracks, it was a little less cohesive as a collection but demonstrated just how much great music had been written and recorded.
Volume three is a real surprise showcasing another seventeen tracks, most of which are of as high a quality as anything from the first two collections. There are obvious reasons why some of the songs were left off first time around, ‘When Th Roses Bloom Again’ was found out to not be a Guthrie tune, ‘Gotta Work’ was written and sung by Corey Harris and wouldn’t have fit the brief of the original album and ‘The Jolly Banker’ was recorded in 2009 by the modern incarnation of Wilco. Why some of the other tracks weren’t consider is more of a mystery, the quality is so consistently high.
Also featured in the set, released to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s centennial year, is a DVD of ‘Man In The Sand’ a documentary about the original project and the recording of the album. It is fascinating viewing and gives a nice summary of Guthrie’s life as well as the processes that went into putting the original album together. It also shows some tensions between Bragg and Wilco during and after recording, largely about which songs to include and who should get to mix the songs for the album. This is perhaps understandable given that the artists didn’t know each other well before the recording and had to learn how to work together and what the boundaries of the project were.
What is a lot more surprising about the project is just how many great songs it produced and what a satisfying listen it is over the three discs in the complete set. As a package it is pretty hard to beat and recommended to fans of Guthrie, Bragg or Wilco as well as anyone who is interested in country, folk or protest songs.
If you already have the first two albums then the third set of songs is available as a digital download separately, and is well worth adding to your set.
By Dorian Rogers