Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra) 'Til We Outnumber 'Em: The Songs of Woody Guthrie (Righteous Babe)
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, and 'Til We Outnumber 'Em: The Songs of Woody Guthrie (Elektra)
Reviewed by Christopher Gray, Fri., June 16, 2000
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra)
'Til We Outnumber 'Em: The Songs of Woody Guthrie
(Righteous Babe)Even though they're nowhere to be found on these latest paeans to the Oklahoma-born populist poet, it's worth pointing out that Rage Against the Machine would be nothing without Woody Guthrie. It was Guthrie who more or less wrested "popular" music into the hands of the dispossessed, and even if he wasn't the first folk singer, it's increasingly hard to deny his standing as the first American songwriter who cared more about the people than the paycheck, the first composer more attuned to his neighbors than his patrons. Was it because of his music, or simply what he had to say? That's a tough one. Even in the Thirties, there was hardly anything revolutionary about blues progressions, gospel changes, and three-or-four-chord folk balladry. If Guthrie's accompaniments were utilitarian to the extreme, their simple nature lent his words even more weight -- the weight of all the history stored up in the music. Certainly the cast of musicians who assembled at Cleveland's Severance Hall in September 1996 to record what has become 'Til We Outnumber 'Em: The Songs of Woody Guthrie weren't interested in anything but letting Guthrie's songs speak for themselves, whether it be Bruce Springsteen's spirited "Driving in My Car," Ramblin' Jack Elliott's hardscrabble "Talkin' Dust Bowl," or Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls' revival-like "Ramblin' Round." And what better testament to Guthrie's egalitarianism than where-are-they-now poster boy Dave Pirner's nearly stealing the whole show with a foot-stomping romp through the tale of gentleman outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd? It's on the second Mermaid Avenue where the question of ownership really arises -- chiefly, if "Secret of the Sea" sounds just like a cut from Wilco's Summerteeth, is it still Guthrie's song? Well, yes, and even if the novelty of the first Mermaid is gone, there's no corresponding dropoff in musical quality. Bringing in Corey Harris for a banjo-assisted reggae reading of "Against the Law" is a nice touch, and Natalie Merchant shows up again for a pleasant "I Was Born." Bragg's jangly "My Flying Saucer" and Wilco's bouncy "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again" both point out something else: Guthrie was about more than labor camps and protest marches, and had a sense of humor as deep as the religious beliefs expressed on "Airline to Heaven" and "Blood of the Lamb." This Mermaid spotlights Guthrie's personal side even more than the last one. Still, it's the fascist-fighting folk hero who steadfastly believed the meek shall inherit the earth, and these tributes drive that point home admirably and with impeccable timing. After all, Guthrie's railing at "All You Fascists" -- performed by Bragg as a harp-fired punk screed -- is easily a first cousin to Rage's Zack de la Rocha bellowing, "Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me!"