Americana / Country / Folk / News

NEWS: Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

On Record Store Day, April 21, Nonesuch will release Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, which includes the original two volumes of Mermaid Avenue (the second re-mastered); a third volume with 17 previously unreleased recordings from those sessions; the 1999 documentary on the sessions, Man in the Sand; and a 48-page booklet with new liner notes by Nora Guthrie, lyrics, archival photographs, and facsimiles of lyric sheets and sketches by Woody Guthrie. Pre-orders include an exclusive print of Guthrie’s lyric sheet for “Hoodoo Voodoo.”


When American folk legend Woody Guthrie died in 1967, at the age of 55, among his stored belongings were thousands of complete song lyrics for which he had not written out music or made recordings. Many of them had been written in the 1940s and ’50s, in the Guthrie family home on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The lyrics remained in boxes for decades, but once his daughter Nora found them in the 1990s, she knew they had to be shared. She approached English singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg to select some to set to music. The Chicago rock band Wilco came aboard soon after, with Jeff Tweedy writing music—along with his late bandmate Jay Bennett on some songs—and the band recording with both Tweedy and Bragg on vocals. Natalie Merchant joined the group to sing a duet with Bragg and two solo songs, and guitarist/singer Corey Harris, who wrote two songs and co-wrote one, performed on many tracks. In 1998, the first batch of songs was released to critical acclaim as Mermaid Avenue, receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II followed in 2000.

On Record Store Day, April 21, 2012, Nonesuch releases Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, which includes: Mermaid Avenue;Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (re-mastered); Mermaid Avenue Vol. III, comprising 17 previously unreleased recordings made during the Mermaid Avenue sessions; director Kim Hopkins’ 1999 film Man in the Sand, which documents those sessions; and a 48-page booklet with new liner notes by Nora Guthrie, full lyrics, archival photographs, and facsimiles of lyric sheets and sketches by Woody Guthrie. The set is available for pre-order now in the Nonesuch Store with an exclusive print of Guthrie’s lyric sheet for “Hoodoo Voodoo.”

In her liner note, Nora Guthrie describes her response to finding these lyrics, which were much more personal and journal-esque than the earlier works for which Woody was best known: “I had just discovered that my father had written more song lyrics than any of us could ever imagine. (Over 3,000 when I finally did the count.) I had just discovered that he had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant, that he felt sorry for Hans Eisler, that he was a proud lush and a comfortable luster, that he believed in flying saucers, that he was homesick for California, that he even knew who Joe DiMaggio was let alone wrote a song about him, or that he once made out with a girl in a tree hollow when, as a kid, he bragged, ‘There ain’t nobody that can sing like me.’”

The New York Times said of the first volume, “[Tweedy and Bragg] are the perfect pair to conclude that Guthrie, far from a predictable Popular Front totem, was a prophetic rock-and-roller with a whole lot to say. All he needed was a band and a little freedom…It says a great deal for [Bragg] that he recognized that his leftism only half-equipped him to bring it off. Woody Guthrie was as American as it gets, and [Chicago–based] Wilco provided that element as few other contemporaries could have. Wilco’s signature, a spacious stylistic sweep from blues to bluegrass, brings all this music to a life no…Brits or Nashville pros could have approached.”

Bragg told NPR in 1998, “The words are so powerful, they’re so evocative to many people…That’s the strength of Woody, it’s the simplicity.” Tweedy added, “I’d have a really good feeling about things if [the album] did lead a certain number of people back to discover Woody Guthrie.”


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