Published Jan 01, 2006Billy Bragg is engaging in a little historical fantasising. "I believe that, had he lived long enough, [Woody Guthrie] would have been one of the first people to buy an electric guitar. Then he would have been able to sound like John Lee Hooker or Sonny Boy Williamson, and he would have wanted to do that. He would have gone electric at Newport in 1955, never mind 1965. He and Pete Seeger could have struggled with the axe then." Bragg chuckles, relishing the ironic image of folk purist Seeger trying to cut short a Guthrie performance, as Seeger would attempt to do to Bob Dylan ten years later.
Billy Bragg and Wilco are also doing some further musical revisions of Guthrie's legacy with Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, a second batch of some of the 2500 unheard Guthrie lyrics set to newly written music. "I don't think of it as a sequel," Bragg says. "This second album is a bit darker than the first one; we've been able ask What haven't we shown you that we know of Woody?'"
The unheard Guthrie resides not in the dustbowl of the 1930s, but on Coney Island (where he lived on Mermaid Avenue) in the 1950s, writing songs about hot rods, flying saucers, and Joe DiMaggio. "The [public] impression is based on ten percent of the songs he wrote in his lifetime. Because of that importance, it's better to see a broader, deeper picture of the guy. All these things make a fuller picture of Woody Guthrie's life as a flesh and blood human being, rather than as some left-wing icon," explains Bragg, himself all too familiar with left-wing icons. "I think he would have hated that, because if anything, he was an iconoclast."
Although about 15 recorded songs remain unreleased from various sessions Wilco wrote and recorded five new tracks, while Bragg's contributions are drawn from Vol. I leftovers Bragg isn't as certain about a third instalment. "When we made Vol. I, we all made a decision there would be a Vol. II it made it easier to leave tracks off. If this one gets nominated for a Grammy [as Vol. I did], I'm sure Elektra will be on the phone."