Billy Bragg talks to Brian Boyd about putting music to the words of Woody Guthrie's unfinished songs (EXCERPTS)

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Hobo troubadour and folk legend Woody Guthrie, and popular English agit-propist Billy Bragg, may be separated by 50 years and an ocean, but they are united by a rare political passion. In a pan-generational handover of archive material, the Woody Guthrie estate ignored the claims of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and even Guthrie's own son Arlo, and has instead requested Bragg to bring Guthrie back to musical life, put the tunes to a series of Woody Guthrie's completed lyrics found in a box by his daughter after his death.

. . . As an uncompromising chronicler of the flip-side of the "American Dream" and as a narrator of unpalatable political truths about failed capitalism, endemic racism and gross social injustice, Woody Guthrie felt the full brunt of the McCarthyite backlash in the 1950s, with the result that his career was foreclosed and most of his best work went unrecorded.

The writer of such memorable songs as The Ballad Of Tom Joad and Vigilante Man, but perhaps best known for writing This Land Is Your Land, a measured response to the flag-waving God Bless America, Guthrie was an anti-fascist activist in the days when that meant "filthy communist". According to his daughter, Nora, only 10 per cent of his work was ever released: with the Mermaid Avenue Guthrie/Bragg album being released this week, a start has already been made on the remaining 90 per cent.

There's long been a story about this project - that Nora Guthrie was going to hand over her father's lyrics to Bob Dylan (seeing as Dylan was massively influenced by Guthrie) but she changed her mind when Dylan appeared at a concert last year that was staged for the Pope, (this making him, in many people's eyes, a unworthy recipient of the work of a man who was writing and singing about women's liberation before it was fashionable or profitable).

"I don't know that, I'm not so sure," says Bragg, "and the reason I'm not sure is that eight years ago, I was asked to play at the Woody Guthrie 80th birthday memorial concert in New York's Central Park where I played two of his songs, one about labour unions and one about international solidarity. Nora was in the audience and apparently really liked what she heard and at the time she was just beginning to unearth all this material of her father's. When she finally asked me to put music to the words, I think she was looking for maybe someone a bit younger than Dylan and I think she liked the way I got her father's political messages across without being pompous."
Did he feel the weight of musical history on him as he completed the songs?
"Well, first there were probably a lot of people thinking that it should have been Bob Dylan's gig and not mine, and that's obviously hard to deal with, given Dylan's massive stature. Also, it was strange because I had come to Woody Guthrie's work through listening to Bob Dylan, and the more I learnt about Dylan, the more I heard that he was part of this tradition of which Guthrie was the originator . . . the biggest shock, though, of the whole project was when everything was finished and I looked down at the finished work and the songs were credited to Guthrie/Bragg."
How did you cope with lyrics that were written 50, 60 years ago?
"There's over 1,000 songs in the archive and though most people associate Guthrie with his more political-type lyric, I was amazed by the range of subject matter there: there were lyrics about making love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano, lyrics about UFOs and lyrics about Walt Whitman. There really is another fun-loving Guthrie and we've tried to bring a bit of that to the album."
. . . But with a liberal consensus in place all over (Blair, Clinton etc;) is there a sense that the sting has been taken out of the political lyric?
"In a sense, yes, but remember that capitalism has stunningly failed to bridge the gap between rich and poor and to right social wrongs. Maybe the language used to articulate the ideas of socialism has changed but I, and many like me, still believe the rights of the individual are best guaranteed by the collective provision of free health care, free education, decent affordable housing and access to the job market."

". . . I'll always be concerned about the issue of redistribution of wealth. I've never really regarded myself as a political songwriter, I've regarded myself as an honest songwriter - I don't believe songs should stop at the bedroom door."

"Which is why this new album isn't really a 'political' album, and it's certainly not a tribute album. It's very much a living collaboration between myself, Wilco and Woody Guthrie. It's not an old-time record or a folk record, it's here and now and I have a funny feeling that now just might be Woody's time. People may at last be ready to reassess his contribution to popular music and recognise him as the first true singer songwriter and remember he was writing and playing a full 20 years before the term had ever been invented."

"Too many bands these days are obsessed with making music that sounds retro, whereas Woody's lyrics on this album, some dating back from as far back as the 1930s, sound like they could have been written just the other day."

Bragg infuses Guthrie's words with characteristic passion and, with 40 tracks recorded for the Mermaid Avenue sessions, there's talk of releasing a second Guthrie/Bragg album later on. He describes Mermaid Avenue as "the best thing I've ever done". And it's not as big a leap from writing anti-Thatcher tirades to singing about Dust Bowl experiences as you would imagine.
"Everything Woody was concerned about then is just as relevant now and to prove my point all I have to tell you is that in America today, there is still a feeling that Woody Guthrie was a traitor."

Mermaid Avenue is released on the Eastwest album label this week. A BBC documentary about the making of the album in Dublin will be screened later this year.

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