Woody Guthrie is best known as a 1930s folk icon, protest singer and Dust Bowl balladeer, but Billy Bragg and Wilco want you to know Guthrie the 1950s Space Age baseball fan.
Two years after the British punk troubadour and the American roots rockers teamed up for Mermaid Avenue, an album that showed Guthrie could also be a poignant love-song writer, the collaborators have written music for another set of unreleased Guthrie lyrics that update his Depression-era image into the era of post-War promise.
"That's why I wanted to record 'Joe DiMaggio Done It Again,' " Bragg said recently from his home in northern England. "It puts him firmly in 1950s Technicolor America."
In addition to "Joe DiMaggio," a jumpy homage to the baseball hero's feats, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II includes "My Flying Saucer" (RealAudio excerpt), a longing look into the skies that is part Buddy Holly and part Jonathan Richman.
"When [Guthrie] got into the 1940s, he didn't have a proper recording contract anymore, but he was still writing hundreds of songs a year," Bragg, 42, said. "And these are the ones that reflect this modern world. You can imagine him now watching baseball, or listening to it on the radio."
Like Bragg and Wilco's first collaboration, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II comprises lyrics Guthrie wrote but never set to music. Many of the 15 songs were cut at the time Mermaid Avenue was recorded, while tracks such as "Secrets of the Sea" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Remember the Mountain Bed" were recorded more recently.
Walk On The Dark Side
But Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, released May 30, doesn't just show a more modern version of Guthrie. It also reveals his darker side.
Where the first album shined with love songs such as "California Stars" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Hesitating Beauty," the new disc stops by seedy places such as "Hot Rod Hotel," in which used condoms stick to the walls, and revels in evil urges in "Meanest Man."
"The lyrics alone for 'Meanest Man' talk about somebody that admits to a lot more contradiction in his personality than [you get with] a lot of icons," Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, 32, said. "You don't really get that as part the caricature of Woody, which is 'This Land Is Your Land,' or any of the Dust Bowl ballads."
Behind the lyrics, Bragg and Wilco kick up off-kilter sounds to match. "Meanest Man," which Bragg sings in his best Tom Waits imitation, sports a solo that sounds like someone fighting, rather than picking, a guitar.
Tweedy and Bragg said the strength of Guthrie's words freed them to take more chances with the music in this batch of songs.
"It's not like they're flimsy kind of lyrics that if you mess with them they don't cut it," Bragg explained. "They're so sturdy that you can really bend songs out of shape and they still make sense. Listen to the way Jeff goes through 'Feed of Man.' He rumbles through it like a train going past you and you're standing still. Eventually when you get your breath back and listen to it again, you begin to pick up the narrative of it."
A Lighter Side
Perhaps most eerie is "Blood of the Lamb," in which a carnival organ and other touches shroud Guthrie's proclamation of Christian salvation in a genuine sense of mystery.
That song, along with "Airline to Heaven" and "Feed of Man," highlight the folk singer's spiritual side.
"I have a history of singing songs like that," Tweedy said, pointing to the traditional "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," which his previous band, Uncle Tupelo, recorded.
"At the core of every religion there's something really truthful and spiritual and beautiful, whether or not I believe or adhere to any of the dogma or ritual or pageantry," he said. "That's why I like those songs. They feel hopeful and scary at the same time."
Guthrie died in 1967 after a 15-year battle with Huntington's disease that prevented him from recording.