Woody's Grandchildren

If you know anything about Woody Guthrie's life, you know that saying he was a prolific writer is like saying Stephen King's done a few books. Throughout his life — or at least until Huntington's chorea disease incapacitated him before his death in 1967 at age 55 — the legendary musician chronicled virtually all his thoughts, insights and emotions in countless journals filled to the margins with everything from songs and poetry to prose and drawings.

So while Guthrie's legacy has rested primarily on his topical songs and populist politics — who hasn't heard "This Land Is Your Land" or seen the picture of him strumming a guitar that proclaims "This Machine Kills Fascists"? — the conventional view of Guthrie as the archetype of the modern folksinger has always been based more on perception than reality. Guthrie's artistry was as complex as his fabled life, and while it's true that he had a conscious hand in the construction of the mythology surrounding both, it's hard to listen to, say, his many children's songs, or read his flowing prose and not recognize how complex — and how eclectic — that artistry was.

That it ultimately fell to British folk-punk Billy Bragg, in cahoots with ragtag American roots-rockers Wilco, to finally bring some of these truths to light, as they did on their wondrous putting-music-to-Guthrie's-words collaboration, 1998's Mermaid Avenue, is certainly remarkable. Remarkable, but also somehow appropriate. Freed by the sheer passage of time from the daunting shadow of iconography that always fell upon Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and the rest of the generation known as "Woody's children," Bragg and Wilco were able to approach Guthrie's half-century-old poems with energy and insouciance. (Think about how you act around your parents and how you act around your grandparents. That's the difference.) It's what made songs like "California Stars" and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" so irresistible, and ultimately made Mermaid Avenue such a multi-leveled triumph.

While it's usually hard to hear the words "Volume 2" and not cringe with the usual fear-of-sequels dread, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2 just might be better than its eye-opening predecessor. For one thing, most of the tracks stem from the '98 Dublin, Ireland, sessions that produced the first collection, so the spirit here is nearly identical. As before, Bragg brings to his compositions the right combination of folk sensibility and punk irreverence, as his songs range stylistically from the Buddy Holly–esque "Flying Saucer"

(RealAudio excerpt) and the rollicking, bluesy "Against th' Law" ("It's against th' law to shoot, against the law to miss ... Everything in Winston-Salem is against th' law, sings guest vocalist Corey Harris), to the jaunty "Stetson Kennedy," ("I ain't the world's best writer nor the world's best speller/ But when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller") and the steamrolling rocker "All You Fascists" ("You fascists bound to lose").

Even more impressive this time around, though, is the work of Wilco, whose songs branch out wider than before, and to often stunning effect. "Secret of the Sea," for example, magically connects Guthrie, the Byrds and the Beatles via Jeff Tweedy's infectious power-pop singing and album MVP Jay Bennet's swirling slide guitar, while "Airline to Heaven" finds Tweedy vocally Dylan-izing Guthrie's lyrics for more cross-generational bridge building. Meanwhile, "Remember the Mountain Bed" and "Someday Some Morning Sometime" take more traditional folk-styled paths to reach deeper emotional planes, and do so with formidable grace and power.

All in all, it's hard to listen to this album and not to be moved by the breadth and scope of Guthrie's muse, and by the invigorating adventurousness of his channelers, Bragg and Wilco. Contrast the dead-on earnestness of "Blood of the Lamb" ("Have you learned to love your neighbors? Of all colors, creeds and kinds? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?") with the goofy glee of "Joe DiMaggio's Done It Again"

(RealAudio excerpt) ("Clackin' that bat! Gone with the wind! Joe DeeMaggyo's done it again.") and you can understand why Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2 strikes so many responsive chords. Here's a work filed with alternating moments of happy and sad, silly and serious, childlike and adult. How many albums have you heard lately that can you say that about?