HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY WOODY GUTHRIE: MERMAID AVENUE VOL III COMING SOON

This year sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, on 14th July 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was one of the most influential figures in popular music, inspiring Bob Dylan and a generation of topical singer-songwriters in the 1960s and even having an influence on punk – Joe Strummer modelled himself on Guthrie, asking friends to call him Woody as a teenager.

Guthrie was the original alternative musician. His most famous song ‘This Land is Your Land’ was written in 1940 as a response to the number one hit of the day, Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn ‘God Bless America’. His alt. credentials were underlined by his determination to write about the lives of ordinary working people and to oppose racial discrimination. On his guitar he painted the words ‘This machine kills fascists’.

Woody’s career as a musician can be divided into two phases. The first western phase saw him living in Oklahoma, Texas and California during the Great Depression. It was during this period that he composed his most famous songs, mostly dealing with the problems faced by farm labourers forced off of the land by dust storms and bailiffs, migrating to California to seek seasonal work as fruit pickers.

The second phase of his career began in 1940, when he moved to New York City. Here he recorded his dust bowl ballads and hooked up with musicians such as Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. New York inspired him to new heights of song-writing, but most of the material he composed in the 40s was never recorded, as topical songwriters became suspect in an America that was undergoing a communist witch-hunt.

By the end of that decade, Woody was beginning to experience the early symptoms of Huntington Disease, a degenerative condition of the nervous system for which there is no cure. By the mid-50s, he was no longer able to perform and spent the rest of his life in hospitals. When he died in 1967, he left thousands of unrecorded songs in manuscript form. What he didn’t leave behind were the tunes.

Like myself, Woody couldn’t write musical notation. When he wrote a song, he kept the tune in his head. As a result, when he died, the tunes for the songs which he hadn’t had time to record were lost forever. And there were thousands of them. It’s estimated Woody only managed to record 10% of the songs he wrote in his lifetime.

It was this treasure trove of songs that Nora Guthrie discovered when she founded the Woody Guthrie Archives in the early 1990s. She’d always known that they were there, in boxes at her mother’s house while she was growing up, but she never realised how many there were and how varied their subject matter.

Nora was concerned that, over the years her father had become a two dimensional figure, known only for ‘This Land is Your Land’ and his influence on Bob Dylan. The unrecorded songs, she felt, offered us a three dimensional vision of her father as more than just a dust bowl balladeer. So became determined to bring these songs to a greater audience.

I first met Nora in July 1992, at a concert in Central Park, New York, to commemorate Woody’s 80th birthday. She began sending me lyrics of her father’s unrecorded songs, encouraging me to write new music and make a collaborative album. Her initiative finally bore fruit in 1997, when I got together with Wilco in Chicago and Dublin, where we recorded nearly 50 ‘new’ Woody Guthrie songs.

The first collection of those songs, ‘Mermaid Avenue’ – named for the street in Coney Island where Woody lived with his family – was released in 1998. A second collection ‘Mermaid Avenue Volume II’ was released in 2000. Both albums were nominated for Grammy awards.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, Nonesuch Records will be releasing ‘Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions’, a four disc set, comprising of remastered versions of Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II as well as a new collection of 17 songs from the original sessions, ‘Mermaid Avenue Volume III’. The fourth disc will contain ‘Man in the Sand’, Kim Hopkins’ 1999 film, which documents the collaboration between Woody, Wilco and me.

As part of this year of celebration, I will be doing a number of shows which will focus on the legacy of Woody Guthrie as expressed through the Mermaid Avenue songs. I’ll be playing acoustic instruments and singing from the book of lyrics which I compiled from the archives and used during the sessions, quoting from Woody’s handwritten notes that are often tagged onto the manuscripts.

I hope to be able to announce details of these Woody100 shows in the coming weeks.

34 Responses to “HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY WOODY GUTHRIE: MERMAID AVENUE VOL III COMING SOON”

  1. Steve says:

    That’s great news Billy, loved (and still love!) the Mermaid Avenue albums. Hope to get to see the show too!

  2. bruce weber says:

    i can’t wait for mermaid avenue lll . i love your work with wilco.

  3. Derfla says:

    Wonderful! Looking forward to Vol III and hope that you come to North Carolina to play a show.

  4. Stephen says:

    Can’t wait Billy. Do you plan a few gigs with Wilco?

  5. peterfromderry says:

    the excitement is building already……..can’t wait……ps – if you can ever do a show in Derry it would be class….

  6. Michael Carr says:

    Some of the best news heard in a long time – thank you!

  7. Simon Benfold says:

    Cannot wait for this, good music never ages and Woody’s lyrics still ring true.

  8. [...] to his blog, the singer/songwriter and Chicago band plan on releasing Mermaid Avenue Vol III in celebration of [...]

  9. Why is Natalie Merchant never mentioned? It’s always Bragg & Wilco, with never any mention of her contribution. She may have just been pulled in as a glorified backing singer for all I know, but that contribution is significant, the songs she sings are gorgeous because of her voice, and doesn’t she needs to be acknowledged regularly? I’m hoping there is more of her in the boxed set alongside the both of you.

  10. greg says:

    great news Woody was an icon before they invented the word and there’s no better person than Billy Bragg to capture the spirit of his music,because he’s of the same spirit.

  11. Rod Plumb says:

    will volume3 be available at all, as a stand alone or have we got to purchase the first two mermaid’s again?

  12. Woodrow Purdy says:

    Will vol III be available to buy on it’s own for those that have vols 1 and 2 and ‘Man In The Sand’ already? Not sure Woody would approve of folks having to fork out for the same stuff twice, especially in times as hard as these.

  13. Billy Bragg says:

    Volume III will be available to download on a track by track basis, so you won’t have to buy Vols I and II again.

  14. Nick Hand says:

    Never a better time to remind people of these great songs. I grew up listening to Woody’s songs and my kids grew up listening to songs from Mermaid Ave. I was just over in New York and someone said that Pete Seeger, 92 or so now, still lives up in the Hudson Valley, I heard he stills plays from time to time. How great if Billy and Pete could share a stage this year.

  15. Mark Marino says:

    “Reissue, repackage, reevaluate the songs.” -Morrissey

  16. Nichole says:

    Awesome news! I love the first two albums. I can’t wait to hear Volume 3!

  17. David Atkinson says:

    Good news indeed, really looking forward to this release. The Mermaid Avenue cds are among the best of recordings of Woody Guthrie’s songs, with great interpretations by BB and Wilco. Any chance of some shows in Oz?

  18. Dan Fennell says:

    Fantastic! So excited. Any chance of a vinyl release of all the sessions?

  19. Scott says:

    Can’t Wait! The Mermaid albums re-introduced me to Woody Guthrie in a big way. Just walking thru his home town was a treat. Hope to see some USA tours.

  20. William says:

    This is great news! The only thing that worries me is the word “remastered”. Hope this doesn’t mean the CDs will be remastered “louder” and therefore with less dynamic range in order to make them compatible with “current standards”. Those two CDs were already pretty loud. Anyway, excited to hear vol 3 and being able to get the DVD since it is out of print. Hope all the original artwork is included. If a vinyl box is made available that’s what I would get.

  21. Deb says:

    Billy I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to write and sing this song, every thing that happended at Hillsborough was so wrong and what happended aftwards with the various cover ups and fabications just were unbelievable and so cruel to the famileis that lots loved ones.
    I didn’ loose a love one at Hillsboroug but as a “Scouser” it cuts deep!
    Billy Bragg – Never Buy The Sun – Studio Version
    http://www.youtube.com
    Hopefully once day we will get justice as it’s just a disgrace, I for one as a “Sxouser” 2ill never ever buy the Sun!
    Thans so much
    Deb – Lynch, Scouser
    PS Apologies if this is not the most appropriate place to post my message, i’m dyslexic and niavataging websites is not always easy for me!

  22. BonfideView says:

    Our “Mermaid” copies have been played so many times, they may be wearing out. What a thrill it was to look at your website and be met with the wonderful surprise that there will be a Mermaid III. Not only that, there is the good news that you will be touring.
    My 19 year old son saw you in concert in Grass Valley, California in 2010. (Unfortunately, I was too much of a Giants baseball fan to give up watching the world series play-offs.) He enjoyed your performance immensely and is very impressed with your hard-working talent(and sense of humor). He has since sought out your earlier punk rock work which has landed a place in his listening collection. He is anticipating the tour schedule posting and suggests that I go see you this time so that I don’t have to live with regrets. Thanks for putting your music out there, we are so happy to be recipients of it.

  23. Anna-Marie Brown says:

    Hi Billy,
    have you got a date for volume III release and the box set?
    I’ve got I and II on cd, will III be on a cd or just available to download?
    See you at Cambridge and Applecart :-)

  24. Billy Bragg says:

    Anna-Marie,

    The album will be out on 21st April. Vol III will be download only.

    See you at Cambridge and Applecart

  25. Mark says:

    Hi Billy

    Cannot wait. I was so lucky to catch you first time around with the blokes.

    Let me know when the dates are announced.

  26. big bill says:

    Dear Billy,
    Fabulous news! Saw you in Lugo, Italy when you toured Vol. 1 with The Blokes, also when you were solo last May. Any chance of coming over to play Vol. 3? Italy (Berlusconiless) is lovely in Summer…

  27. Bonnie Gunn says:

    Just saw on http://www.woodyguthrie.com that you are comi g to Okemah for Woodyfest!! SO EXCITED!

  28. Mike Murray says:

    Thanks for coming back to Okemah! The show at the Crystal Theater in ‘98 was fantastic, and I look forward to seeing you there again. Brilliant!

  29. julie downey says:

    I hope you will be appearing in the Los Angeles event honoring Woody on April 14th at Club Nokia in downtown LA. Is that a possiblity? What about Wilco? Will they be appearing too? I’d love to see you folks out here.

  30. Ted Goodman says:

    your appearAnce on Ten o’clock Live on 11th april 2012 was brilliant. You, however, understated your case. The Oxford graduates who populate both front bences in Parliament constitute a hereditary ruling elite. Their fathers and sons also go to Oxford !

  31. Jonnie sear says:

    Great news Bill. Who’s in the band on tour? I’m going to Leicester’s Summer Sundae and really looking forward to it. Cheers!

  32. Bernard says:

    Hi I just stumbled on your blog and read a few posts. It is so sad to see what is going on in Coney Island. I was born in Brooklyn and spent many a days in Coney Island as a child. I had no idea so much cgnahe was taking place. I was somewhat comforted with the Coney Island Museum post you had. I haven’t been to Coney Island in many years, but the next time I visit NYC, I will go, if only to see the last remnants of a bygone era. Nice Blog!

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