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Mermaid Avenue

Ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Way over yonder in the minor key

One of my favourite singer / songwriters is Billy Bragg who is not afraid to combine music and politics together. He’s able to mix the personal and the political in an entertaining way that also enables change. I’d heard a few of his recordings of some Woody Guthrie songs, but I didn’t know the story until I saw the documentary about the recording of Mermaid Avenue, Man in the Sand. The film follows Billy Bragg as he works with Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora, who gave Bragg access to the huge library of unrecorded Guthrie songs to record some for the first time. Bragg brought the band Wilco to the project to collaborate with and the film about the project hints at some tension between them, but the music transcends that. The documentary is narrated by Nora Guthrie and she tells the story of her father as we see Bragg collaborating with the members of Wilco as well as Natalie Merchant in adding music to the lyrics that Woody wrote. It’s fascinating to watch the process and to see Bragg with Nora as they talk about the man and his music. It’s a great documentary that combines music, history and people together.
My favourite song from the project is She Came Along to Me (with the acoustic version from Live at the Barbican my preferred recording), closely followed by Birds and Ships, featuring Natalie Merchant’s vocals. Overall the recordings are solid but some of them feel a bit overproduced. I also purchased some Billy Bragg bootlegs with Guthrie songs and I prefer the live versions. Maybe the live performances fit in better with Guthrie’s lyrics or it’s just hearing a great performance live, but the different versions are fascinating (as well as Billy’s banter between the songs). With the recordings and the film, I’m realizing what a huge influence Woody Guthrie has had on folk and popular American music.

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