Arts: Down the A13 via Route 66

It could be a recipe for disaster: Essex man sets US folk icon's lyrics to music. But has Woody Guthrie found a soul mate in Billy Bragg?

So what did happen to Billy Bragg, the man The Sunday Times recently dismissed as "an Eighties protest singer"? The man with the atonal Dagenham croak who founded Red Wedge and gave us such gems as "Levi Stubbs' Tears" and the beautiful "A New England". Now we've got an alleged new England, is there anywhere to go?

After a steady trickle of albums, there'll be a Best Of ... along soon, but in the interim, something more fortuitous has fallen into Bragg's lap. He has been charged by Woody Guthrie's daughter with the job of breathing new life into the songs of the legendary American protest singer, whose grainy ballads told the tale of the dust-storm devastation of Thirties' Oklahoma, and the families who fled to California, the promised land - only to wind up destitute in migrant workers' camps.

The dustbowl blues are the works we know best, but Guthrie, who left the midwest for Texas, LA and eventually New York, wrote more than a thousand songs. In 1954 he was hospitalised with the hereditary wasting disease Huntington's chorea and, though he scribbled on until his death in 1967, the illness saw him excluded from the folk scene he had kick-started.

He had recorded only a fraction of his own songs when his daughter Nora, who runs the Woody Guthrie archive on New York's West 57th Street, found a stash of lyrics. She set about finding someone who could give them melodies, and her choice was a troubadour from the badlands of Essex.

The route was circuitous. In 1991, Bragg wrote a song around the title of an erotic Guthrie drawing, You Woke Up My Neighbourhood: the following year, he played it at a concert to mark the 80th anniversary of Woody's birth. In 1996, he was there for Guthrie's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "I've been asked," he said, "to do something in the spirit of Woody Guthrie. So I'm gonna go and have a piss from the balcony and steal all the cutlery backstage."

"Here is someone who knows what dad was really like," thought Nora, sick of Guthrie's status as holy cultural icon.

Bragg took some persuading, but not too much. "Initially, I didn't think I was the person to take on his legacy - but when I realised how much stuff there was, I thought, `It's not like I'm working with the last few scraps, and if I screw it up, there'll still be a lot left.' "

In addition, the idea wasn't to make a tribute album but to turn out a collaboration, with Guthrie's lyrics, Bragg and post-grunge rockers Wilco writing tunes and singing vocals. The result, Mermaid Avenue (named after Guthrie's Coney Island family home), is cool, rocky and fresh. The songs deal with love, lust and footloose dreamers, and you'd never know they were 50 years old.

But then Guthrie is not an historical relic, as Bragg points out. He opens a folder full of copies of the original lyrics, scrawled in Guthrie's increasingly scrambled handwriting. "Look at this," he says, thrusting the bible into my hands. "See what this one's called?" The song is My Flying Saucer. It seems strange that Woody was space age ...

"Never mind that," says Bragg. "See the note, top left-hand corner? What does it say?"

"Supersonic boogie," I mumble, thinking that Bragg would make a fine schoolteacher.

"Instead of this little guy in the dust bowl, like some character in The Grapes of Wrath, you realise he's living in New York City at the most exciting time. This stuff shows he was a living, breathing man."

A bit of a womanising, boozing, wild man, by all accounts.

"He was a punk rocker!" Bragg hoots. "And when I saw `supersonic boogie' - what he wanted, though he couldn't move - it was like Woody was whispering in my earhole saying, `Go on, I dare you to take these sacred texts and do what I would've done with them.' "

It seems odd that Nora asked an Englishman to interpret an American legend - but it was sensibility, not accent, she was worried about. Guthrie and Bragg play on the same team, politically speaking - Guthrie's guitar bore the celebrated legend, "This machine kills fascists" - and Bragg is keen to point out that half the songs Guthrie grew up with, sung to him by his grandmother, were English folk ballads. "We forget that the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant population of the States is an immigrant culture, and Woody's people come from the same place my people come from. I don't mean Dagenham. But you know that song on the album, "Unwelcome Guest"? You'd think it's about a Jesse James-type outlaw, but his horse is called Black Bess. Now, whose horse was called Black Bess? So that, to me, became a highwayman ballad. When I wrote the tune, I thought it should sound like "Streets of Laredo", and the tune of that is from an English ballad, "St James Infirmary"."

Other songs from the collection range from an ode to Joe DiMaggio to the Sputnik launch in 1957. How painful was it for Bragg, and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, to sift through words written in the last stages of Guthrie's illness? "Nora won't have him seen as a victim. Me and Tweedy came across this song which is just verse, verse, verse, going, `Oh God, Oh God, Oh God' and we imagined him drowning in this terrible disease. But Nora said it may have been revelation - `Oh God! Oh God!' - or may have been his mantra. I've learnt a lot about positivity from her."

Does Bragg feel he ever did more in the Eighties than preach to the converted? "Well, first, it's about entertainment. And then, was I true to what I believed in? And if I feel that I was, that's all I can do. I can't go out and look for signs of how my songs changed the world - it's pointless, frankly." Woody Guthrie would probably grin, light a cigarette, and say the same.

The album `Mermaid Avenue' is released by EastWest today. The book `Woody Guthrie: A Life' by Joe Klein (Faber & Faber) has just been reprinted with a foreword by Billy Bragg.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform