Pittsburgh Celebrates 20 Years of Billy Bragg and Wilco
June 23, 1998 Mermaid Avenue, an album of previously unheard lyrics written by the late American songwriter Woody Guthrie, was released into the world forever changing the landscape of Americana music.
The UK singer/songwriter and activist, Billy Bragg teamed up with the alt-country band Wilco to bring these unheard songs to life. Bragg had been approached by Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie several years before about recording some of the thousand or so unrecorded compositions her father left behind. This was the first attempt at handing of these unfinished Woody songs to a new generation to discover and the results of the project were met with enormous critical acclaim. Mermaid Avenue is one of the most loved Americana albums of all-time inspiring fans and musicians alike. Billy Bragg & Wilco were successful in introducing the genius of Woody Guthrie's writing to a new generation and thus began the tradition of reviving his unwritten songs from the massive Guthrie archive.
To celebrate this momentous album's 20th anniversary, WYEP asked some of the best Pittsburgh roots musicians to share their thoughts about their favorite songs from Mermaid Avenue.
I first heard “California Stars” at the end of a marathon Wilco set at the 9:30 Club in DC (mid 2000s). A fan up front booed when he realized they weren’t going to play his request. Jeff Tweedy scolded him, “are you really booing us? We’ve played 22 songs tonight!” and then launched into “California Stars.” I didn’t know about the song or the Mermaid Avenue project at the time. But even at the end of a long set I knew this was something special.
For me, “California Stars” embodies the spirit of Mermaid Avenue. It’s a true example of what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music. It’s a collaboration across space and time. A sound steeped in tradition but not bound by it, something Woody Guthrie understood well. Music that welcomes immigrants, refugees, trespassers and outlaws — also an indie band from Chicago and an English punk rocker. “California Stars” is all of this, two young lovers looking up at an american sky and dreaming of a better tomorrow. - Chet Vincent
"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"
After only discovering Wilco, Bragg, and Guthrie in my mid-twenties, I was a late in appreciating the slight twang and heavy emotional appeal of their music. I listened to their catalogs in reverse, hitting Mermaid Ave only when I was well into my time with The Red Western. Growing up I basically lived in the “woods” around my house, “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” brings me back to summers of freedom where I had nothing but my own childish ambitions to guide me. The tiny wooded world was a universe for me and my friends and the circle of pines behind my house was our fort. This will always be a song that shows me music’s ability to paint a picture, a tendency that seems to creep its way into my own songwriting, and guides me to seek out music that is sensory, emotional, and honest. - Lauren DeLorenze (former Red Western)
"Walt Whitman's Niece"
Billy Bragg & Wilco recorded “Mermaid Avenue.” But to me, it’s a Woody Guthrie album. Of course, it’s his lyrics. Woody Guthrie always represented to me, the true American Songwriter. The opening cut is “Walt Whitman’s Niece”. Walt Whitman, the true American Poet. Whitman said “The American poets are to enclose old and new, for America is the race of races.” This record encompasses the old and new, and forces the listener to forget time.
This song “Walt Whitman’s Niece” creates no beginning and no end. What it does, is leaves everything up to the audience’s senses. The seaman, the narrator’s buddy, builds the scene. The steps, the building, and the girls. Spending all night with a couple of girls reading poems... or not. It’s the perfect poem. You can smell the sea, see the dirt on the steps, the claustrophobic feel of the long room, hear the girls laugh. There’s beauty, lust, and nowhere. So many unanswered questions. But the moment is quite clear. This is America. (I won’t say what America). - Bill Toms
"Christ for President"
The rambunctious energy of this tune is captivating. Jeff Tweedy’s signature vocal grit rouses enthusiasm over a steady, swampy groove that conjures visions of a campaign trail parade for Jesus Christ himself. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics nimbly adopt the stump-speech jargon we’ve all heard before, except these declarations are sincere. After all, this candidate is a man of the people with a proven track record. The collaboration results in a brilliant song of enduring relevance. Woody Guthrie bests any high-brow intellectual analysis with the plain-spoken truth. Christ is undoubtedly a radical political figure and his portrayal as a modern-day candidate forces us to examine the pandering and posturing that pervades our electoral process. I think Americans are fatigued by the lack of reverence and the flimsy moral courage of our elected officials. So Put the Carpenter in, he’s got my vote. - Jon Bindley (Bindley Hardware Co.)
"I Guess I Planted"
Billy Bragg did these lyrics for “I Guess I Planted” the best possible justice by crafting an infectiously catchy song that culminates in a lively, free-flowing sing-along. As a listener, this invites you to join in the celebration of exactly what he is speaking to- coming together, this time in the context of labor unions, to create something bigger than the parts themselves.
Woody Guthrie’s songs about the labor struggles of his time have always been my favorites of his. My dad was a union shop steward for decades, and we still ride our bikes down to the parade together every Labor Day. I always leave feeling inspired by the courage and the joyfulness of people coming together and realizing their collective power. That spirit is captured so nicely by this song, reminding us above all that “The big ones are made up of the little kind.” - Molly Alphabet
"The Unwelcome Guest"
It's apt that we can compare "the rich man's bright lodges" to Trump Towers today. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyric long ago, but history repeats. Woody, an unwelcome guest in a capitalistic society, a man with "no home" in a world where "the gambling man is rich and the working man is poor," strived to undo injustices. Billy Bragg recognized the prominent point of his own career as a moment of self-realization that he had "joined the tradition." And the tradition remains - an unwelcome guest to sing, to question, to expose, to condemn tyrants in a "playhouse of fortune" who have "stolen their gold" from someone else.
"My guns and my saddle
Will always be filled
By unwelcome travelers...
And they'll take the money
And spread it out equal
Just like the Bible
And the prophets suggest"
It is so befitting that Billy Bragg chose to put Woody's dream to this beautiful tune, this never ending waltz. - Tom Breiding
"Hesitating Beauty" is such a joyful tune, especially when considering the other songs on the album. Tweedy's voice is brilliant. The message of the song definitely illuminates a yearning for stability, which was more prevalent during Woody Guthrie's time, post WWII. As a listener in my early twenties, this song is especially relatable in that sense. Everyone wants the "perfect" life, and marriage is the easy answer. It's interesting that the male point-of-view in this song pinpoints the issue as Nora Lee's "hesitation" rather than her own will to not be married. As a songwriter, it would be fun to tell the tale from the woman's perspective, considering her thoughts and emotions. Either way, the song is cheerful and definitely one of my favorites off of the album. - Angela Autumn
In terms of trying to channel the spirit of Woody, I feel Ingid Bergman is the most representative. It's simple and ephemeral, though speaks volumes about creator and performer. Bragg brings Guthrie's infatuation with film star Ingrid Bergman to life in a mere minute 1:50. So quickly in fact, one may not recognize the mechanisms at work. Both artists are known for their political and protest songs, but also for their creation of topical material. The song highlights events taken from 1950's “Stromboli” staring Bergman, directed by Roberto Rossellini. In 1950 Guthrie was still living in the downstairs apartment at 3520 Mermaid Ave. in Coney Island. This song is indicative of one of the many facets of Woody, namely its coy enshrouded wit and insinuation. His open writing style leaves no apologies for lustful innuendo, and Bragg's cool metered delivery and abrupt ending doesn't show his hand. - Bryan McQuaid
Stream Billy Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue