Billy Bragg's 1983 debut, Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, set an agenda that the Essex-born singer/songwriter would follow throughout his career. Mixing personal songs with political material reflecting his commitment to left-wing causes, that album and those that followed (most notably 1986's Talking With The Taxman About Poetry and 1991's Don't Try This At Home, although Bragg has yet to make a bad record) incorporated both elements into powerfully memorable songs. Though Bragg would likely resist the comparison, parallels can be drawn between his career and that of the pioneering, similarly politically committed American folk singer Woody Guthrie. It's appropriate, then, that Bragg's latest project, Mermaid Avenue—a collaboration with the acclaimed alt-country band Wilco—is a set of songs Bragg and Wilco constructed around unrecorded Guthrie lyrics. Most of these have remained essentially unseen until now, having been written after Guthrie's career was essentially ended by the debilitating nerve disease Huntington's chorea. Though a fitting tribute, the results surpass the contents of any tribute album. Before beginning his American tour, Bragg talked to The Onion about the project.
The Onion: How did you first encounter Woody Guthrie's music?
BB: Via Bob Dylan. Like most people, probably. Because, of all those people old enough to know Woody Guthrie when he was a performer, no one went to see him and nobody bought his records. Very few people can say, "I was there." [Pete] Seeger was there because he was doing the same gigs, but there are very few people, I think, who can say that they got into Woody Guthrie… At the earliest, it was probably the folk revival, when Woody was too ill to perform anymore. Most people, I think, probably got into him second-hand. And I was even more second-hand: In the early '70s, I read a biography by Anthony Scaduto, who I think was a New York detective, and for some reason, he wrote a biography of Bob Dylan. It was the first biography of a rock person I'd ever read. And it happened to be about Dylan, about whom I happened to be a little obsessive. So I sort of lapped up this story of Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie was a very large presence in it. I went out and found… You have to understand, Woody didn't have much of a profile in the early '70s in Britain. So I couldn't really find anything, apart from a cassette which was an import from France. The French were known for their esoteric records. For instance, if you wanted a record of African music, chances are it would be French. They were doing that sort of shit when we were putting out Gary Glitter and Sweet. And I managed this Woody cassette, which spelt his name wrong and had a photo of him on it—but no sleeve notes whatsoever, apart from a list of the songs, and no mention of who had written them. Nothing. And I played it and thought, "Oh, my God. What's this? That's far too crude for my sensibilities." And, you know, sort of thought, "Well, I know who Woody Guthrie is now and that's that," and I got back to Bob Dylan. And I suppose if you listen to my first album, you would have exactly the same reaction. Oh, my God, that's far too crude for me. Who's that horrible geezer with an English accent playing that loud guitar? Quite ironic, really.
O: I think I picked up your first album after hearing Don't Try This At Home, and it is quite a shock going back to that.
BB: Yeah, there's a certain crudeness, in the original sense of the word, that me and Woody have in common. Not crude in the sense of being crude in our language or anything, but just in the fact that what we do is quite basic, quite fundamental.
O: There's a directness in the lyrics, too, that Bob Dylan lost, but that you and Guthrie have in common.
BB: Well, Bob Dylan kind of took it somewhere else, I think. If you look at Bob Dylan, he was the archetypal singer/songwriter. He defined singer/songwriting. But Woody Guthrie kind of, I think… I've already gotten myself in trouble saying this before… For my money, Woody Guthrie, if he didn't invent the singer/songwriter, he kind of paved the way with the sort of things he wrote about.
O: Why would you get in trouble for saying that?
BB: Well, last time I said it to [Jeff] Tweedy [Wilco's lead singer and songwriter], he said to me, "Homer was the first singer/songwriter." I thought, "Okay, I'm not getting into this argument." [Laughs.] When I said it to Tweedy, he kind of bit my head off. So I thought, okay, I'm going to just relax on this and realize that I should perhaps just be saying that he was among the first, rather. Because I've never heard any of Homer's records. I couldn't really [argue with] Jeff on that. I think the singer/songwriter is an American form. I don't think it's just a generalization, although I think of myself as a singer/songwriter. But I think it's a particularly American form that came into its own during the folk revival: It was huge in the early '70s—with people like James Taylor or Jackson Browne, or that kind of person—and always involved an element of social comment. And that's what I mean when I say Woody was the first singer/songwriter. He was writing songs like "Another Man Done Gone," which have those introspective, self-revelatory kind of element to them. That to me is the essence of the singer/songwriter type. That's what I based the idea… I'm not saying Woody was the first person to write his own songs. I'm just saying that Woody was writing very personal songs like "She Came Along To Me," songs about the politics of gender, in 1942. Look, this guy is not just this hobo guy writing songs about the dust bowl. Or kids' songs. If you know a little bit about Woody, you must have an idea that he was capable of writing in a number of styles. And for someone who worked so hard to do that, it's a dreadful, dreadful shame that he's become sort of a two-dimensional figure affixed to the dust bowl. I also believe he's the last in a balladeer tradition that goes all the way back to Elizabethan England.
O: I can see that.
BB: That's an incredible paradox. It's partly because of the time he was born and the period in which he was performing that put him on the cusp of folk music and popular music, you know? Most people don't think about these things. I'm sure you know about as much of Woody as the rest of us do. And [about as much] as I did before I began this project. I wasn't a huge Woody Guthrie fan, but I knew he was important, important enough for me to be able to quote one or two of his songs. But when I met Nora Guthrie, his daughter, who commissioned this project in '92 at a birthday concert in Central Park—it was an 80th-birthday celebration… I knew so much about Woody Guthrie that I had to go to the Tower Records on 72nd & Broadway and buy a cassette to check the lyrics of "Pretty Boy Floyd," to make sure I would sing the right verses and not embarrass myself. And God help me if someone further up the bill just before me had sung it. 'Cause I would have been fucked. I would have had to rush back to the hotel and listen to another track and work out how to play that. So, you know, none of us are Woody Guthrie experts when we come to this. We're all aware that he's an important character.
O: What was the most interesting thing you learned that you didn't know before?
BB: Woody Guthrie doesn't belong in the dust bowl, where we think of him. He actually belongs in New York City. He's very much a New York City person. He was writing these songs, living on Coney Island from 1940 until he died [in 1967]. For quite a large part of his life, he was living in New York City—in Brooklyn, in fact. He was living in Brooklyn when Jackie Robinson was batting for the Dodgers.
O: You don't think of him during that period.
BB: You don't at all, do you? And that's why we called the album Mermaid Avenue [the Coney Island street on which Guthrie lived], to get people to focus. Woody Guthrie would not have written Bound For Glory [his autobiography] if he hadn't come to New York City and met Marjorie, his wife. He was just carrying on, bumming around, and he never got it together properly. He may never have amounted to much at all if he hadn't gotten to New York. New York was his equivalent of getting on MTV. He was out there in Oklahoma; he'd written quite a few songs. He actually wrote "This Land Is Your Land" on the way to New York City in the winter of 1940. It was only coming to New York City, and meeting people like Alan Lomax [a producer without whom much traditional music from America and elsewhere would be lost], meeting Seeger and those guys… All the rest of those guys came out of East Coast colleges, and that's where they were, and that's what they were doing. And then one day, Woody Guthrie, the hillbilly Shakespeare, walks in off the street. To try to set the scene for you for what it was like when he came to New York City, there were all these guys who had been to college, who were nice enough fellows, trying to write rural political songs. And there's Woody. Imagine what it must have been like for them to hear him sing his songs.
O: It's the real thing all of a sudden.
BB: It's not just that it's the real thing, but that it's much, much better than you ever imagined it would be. And well ahead of them. Never been to college, but well ahead of them. Before then, the only guys who ever made it into those kinds of places were generally black men when they were in their 40s or 50s. When they were pretty old, they finally would get to Chicago or New York and get discovered. But Woody was different from all that. I think of Woody now more as a New York kind of person.
O: Is that the primary difference you see between the lyrics you were given and the lyrics we know from what was recorded?
BB: Yeah. I think that's because his recording career was kind of over by the end of the war. And [there was a] period of intense cultural activity in New York City between, say, 1945 and 1955, when all the elements that we know of popular culture were already present in New York City or being born in New York City. Almost all the great pop in America was coming out of New York City; the folk revival happened in New York City; the beatniks kind of came out of New York City cafés. It was pretty central to what was going on, when L.A. was still just Hollywood and hadn't really gotten the rest of its media together, you know? And I just think it must have been an incredibly exciting time to be there. I didn't really grasp how much he got into that until I saw a lyric for a song called "My Flying Saucer." It's odd enough that Woody Guthrie should write a song about flying saucers, but up in the top left-hand corner, he'd written, to remind him how to play it, "supersonic boogie." And when I read those words, I realized that not only was he living in New York City; he was listening to the radio and going to gigs and picking up on it. That gave me a real quantum shift in my perception of the music he used to put around his songs when I saw that phrase.
O: When it came time to make music for Mermaid Avenue, did you consciously try to avoid sounding too much like stuff Woody Guthrie had recorded?
BB: With all due respect to Woody's many, many fans, this is not a job for a Woody Guthrie fan. Because it's a collaboration, and you don't want to know too much about him. You don't want to be too aware of what he's done. I didn't want to make a Woody Guthrie album, or make an album that sounded like a Woody Guthrie album. I wanted to make an album that sounded like a collaboration: me and Woody and Wilco all collaborating with each other. And with due respect to the strength of Woody's own recorded output, I think we've made something pretty exceptional. Even by the standards of my own output, I think we've done something exceptional.
O: How did you hook up with Wilco?
BB: Well, I'd known Jeff Tweedy from when he was in Uncle Tupelo. And I really felt there needed to be a band involved in this rather than a group of people playing together, if you know what I mean. Rather than getting a lot of people in a studio and hoping that it jells, I wanted to get a band that had been playing together for a while to come and do it. And Wilco are just so American, in a Midwest sense. Their Americanness just comes out on their records. It just struck me as being in the realms of possibility, so I mentioned it to Jeff, and over a period of six months, we talked about it. Then I managed to get him into the archive to see the stuff and meet Nora, and I think then the uniqueness of the project really hit him. I think he was already sold on it, but he was like, "I'll believe all this when I see it"—much like myself initially. And then, when he actually saw what's in the archive… You'd have to be very cynical not to be taken by it.
O: You were given a thousand lyrics, right?
BB: Well, I was given the boxes with a thousand lyrics in them, yeah. Whether or not I managed to see all thousand of them, I very much doubt. If you start at "A," by the time you get to about "F" or "G," your eyesight's going.
O: So you divided up between the two of you who was going to do what?
BB: Well, I think you just go in and look at the songs that interest you. And one of the things I felt very strongly about was that if I go in there on my own, they'll all be songs that reflect something that I think. It was really important to get Jeff to go in and look himself. You know, I probably would not have picked up on "Hoodoo Voodoo," and I very much doubt that he would've picked up on "She Came Along To Me." I think he has some ideas about the songs that interest him… I think whoever you are, if you go in there, you can find stuff that would interest you that would be different from the stuff that interested me.
O: "She Came Along To Me" is incredibly ahead of its time in terms of its politics.
BB: Exactly. The whole approach to gender politics in that song… Not just what he says, but the fact that he equates his wife to all womanhood, in a totally non-cheesy way… I was just bowled over by that.
O: Did you pretty much select who sang based on who arranged the song?
BB: More or less. There were some differences. I wrote the music for "Another Man Done Gone," but Jeff sang it. And there's one about Joe DiMaggio that I wrote that Wilco wouldn't let me sing 'cause I didn't know nothing about baseball.
O: Which one was that? I didn't pick up on that.
BB: It's called "Joe DiMaggio." It didn't make it [onto the album]. We recorded 40 songs.
O: Do you plan to release any more of those?
BB: I'd like to. If this album is well-received, I'd like to think that a second album might see the light of day. Because "My Flying Saucer" didn't make it, either. The second album will be just as strong as the first. I'll be playing some of them live through the summer anyway; they're just… We were trying to get a balance between my songs and Jeff's, and between the different subject matters that Woody had touched on. You know, when you get the overall picture, some things just don't fit.
O: "Ingrid Bergman" was kind of an interesting song, too.
BB: Yeah, that was one of the first ones that struck me.
O: Was this written during the period when she was a controversial figure?
BB: Well, just after. Before she went to make this movie Stromboli , which he mentions, she wasn't controversial at all. She was sort of like a virginal figure from Sweden who played nuns and Joan of Arc-type figures. Then she went to make this movie and ran off with the director, [Roberto] Rossellini, and the result was Isabella Rossellini. [Bergman was married to someone else at the time and had her first child with Rossellini, Robertino, before marrying him.] It caused an incredible scandal in America, and I think it made Woody even more obsessed with her—just sort of piqued all his fantasies about her. I just like to think what the result would have been if Woody had really had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, if there had been an Isabella Guthrie. It's an odd thought, isn't it?
O: How do you feel about the relationship between music and politics at the moment? It seems that music and politics are less closely related now than they were in the last decade or so.
BB: I think these things come and go with political times. Since the Berlin Wall came down, we've been living in a time that is less ideological, if you can believe that there could be a less ideological time in American politics. The politics we have in Britain at the moment are less ideological than we've had before. And I think that at times like that, people who want to make a statement cast around for other places. I'm sure the people who are doing these gigs for Tibetan freedom think that's very political. You and I might not see it in that sense: We might see it in a humanitarian way, or we might see it as a bunch of people who just like Tibetans. But I think it has a political side to it, and there are still bands out there like Rage Against The Machine who are prepared to walk it like they talk it. I just think you can't expect pop and politics to always be at the center of attention. It's like, sometimes dance music is very strong, or sometimes a particular artist is very strong. And political content in music is similar to that. It's not a constant thing.
O: You and Jeff Tweedy both got your start in punk bands. What do you feel is the connection between, say, punk and folk music?
BB: Well, I do think there is a connection. All through the history of popular culture, there have been two dominant strains that have continually struggled with each other: do-it-yourself culture and commercial culture. Now, commercial culture manifests itself in many different ways. For instance, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, people like Irving Berlin, wrote as professional songwriters for purely commercial purposes; they were, you know, what The Spice Girls are today. It's purely commercial. And do-it-yourself manifests itself in many ways, as well: Obviously, the first one would be rural music, music people made for themselves, whether it was blues or country or folk or whatever. Where people would hear a song on the radio, learn how to play it, and then not bother listening to that song or buying the record. They'd just learn to play it on their porch. Elvis Presley kind of began as DIY. Even The Beatles began as DIY, playing black music that they wanted to hear when they couldn't actually see the people performing it. If you look at the first Beatles album, there are loads of covers of Tamla Motown songs. It later became wholly commercial. Obviously, I think punk is DIY, and there are elements now of modern dance music that are pretty DIY. I think of Beck as being DIY, although he's incredibly commercial, but he came from that DIY background, these guys in their bedrooms. And that struggle has always gone on. At the moment, you would think the commercial aspect is completely overwhelming the DIY, but we're on the cusp of a time when people are going to be able to make music in their bedrooms and send it to you straight down the line without a record contract, without a record shop, without a radio, you know? And we're going to be back on a DIY tip again.
O: You've said you didn't know that much about Woody Guthrie going into the project, and that you didn't really read a biography until the record was nearly done. What surprised you when you did?
BB: Well, that's how I picked up on the New York stuff, and also how little was known about him. I realized his career has never been genuinely reassessed. If this project in any way contributes to a proper reassessment of Woody Guthrie's contribution to pop culture and the music we listen to today, everyone from Bob Dylan to Beck, then we'll have been doing something more than what Nora asked us to do. Because she certainly didn't say that when I approached her. But I personally feel that Woody was given a bit more credit for what he did and for the influence he's had all down the line, you know?