What do you get when you’re presented with the lyrics to nearly 3,000 previously unknown songs by one of the 20th century’s leading singer-songwriters? ”An astounding opportunity,” says English agit-folkie Billy Bragg, who on June 23 will release an album of songs by Woody Guthrie that have never been recorded or published.
Bragg, 40, was asked to make the record by the folk legend’s daughter, Nora, who has spent almost a decade organizing a comprehensive archive of her father’s work. Because Guthrie neither read nor wrote musical notation, the melodies to many of these newfound lyrics died with him in 1967. It was Bragg’s job, then, to set an album’s worth of words to music. He recruited y’all-ternative hipsters Wilco as collaborators — and the result is Mermaid Avenue, named for the street in Coney Island, N.Y., where Guthrie lived when he wrote some of the songs.
”He was a punk-rocker in the strict sense,” Bragg says of Guthrie, ”writing anti-fascist slogans on his guitar 30 years before the Clash.” The album does contain much of the populist political sentiment that Guthrie was noted for, but it also reveals a side to the troubadour that never reached the public during his lifetime, with deeply personal songs about sex and thoughts of dying. ”He’s much more rock & roll than we give him credit for,” Bragg says. ”And if this album can make the average Dylan or Springsteen fan appreciate the influence of Woody Guthrie, then I’ll be happy.”