Billy Bragg – Billy Bragg and Wilco resurrect Woody Guthrie by breathing new music into his long-lost lyrics
“Well, it’s not like I’ve got the last couple of fragments. It’s not like I’ve got the last half-dozen tunes. There’s so much stuff here, I mean, I could make a record and then if that’s no good then you can make a record and probably all those people over there could make a record each.” British punk folkie Billy Bragg has thus come to terms with his project to score and record lyrics written decades ago by an American icon: Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie’s seventh child, Nora, reinforces Bragg’s assessment. “The old myth that there were a thousand songs turned out to be about three thousands lyrics. And that’s just from our collection, because he freely distributed a lot more lyrics and writings out there.”
In middle age, Nora Guthrie is getting to know her father through his writing, just ahead of the legions of writers, art scholars, curators and other musicians destined to follow Billy Bragg to the Woody Guthrie Archives. The dad of Nora’s childhood had Huntington’s Chorea, his loss of control growing more startling, then frightening, each of the 15 years it progressed before he died in 1967. Nora stresses how much her father taught her family through his illness, but much more is unknown or forgotten about the man whose music provided the soundtrack of working-class life, and whose character often was symbolized by a guitar emblazoned with the slogan: “This machine kills fascists.”
“It’s like looking through your attic when you have to move,” she says. “‘I didn’t know I had this! I didn’t know I had that!’ Two hours later you find you’re reading things instead of doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” She meant only to store them, she says, carefully interleaving the papers with buffered tissue to leach their acid and cataloguing them for future access.
In a modest office building on 57th Street in New York City, tucked in the corner of the twelfth floor — just past the doors of the allergist and the handwriting expert — is a five-room working office where the phones ring constantly on steel desks and cabinets are piled high with files, binders and magazines. The walls are covered with gold records and concert posters: The Weavers, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger. Neatly written on May 6 of the planning calendar is “CBS News film.”
Nora Guthrie’s desk is spread with artwork requiring her approval: album covers, liner notes and j-cards for her father’s latest recording project, Mermaid Avenue, named for her childhood home on Coney Island. She carries on several conversations at once — visitors in town from Germany, reporters on deadline, the archivist relating questions from the Smithsonian Institution about an imminent tour of Woody’s effects, and a meeting waiting in the adjacent office.
The Woody Guthrie Archive shares offices with the Woody Guthrie Foundation and with Foundation Trustee Harold Leventhal, who managed the Weavers and still manages Pete Seeger, and, in between, was manager and promoter of countless artists, concerts and festivals involving legends of American folk music. Until 1996, he also was steely guardian of the boxes and file drawers crammed with thousands of pages of Guthrie’s life as Woody recorded it.
That year, Leventhal spearheaded a marathon fundraiser with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billed as Hard Travellin’, its purpose was to endow an archive, staffed and equipped to conserve the sketches, cartoons, writings and ephemera saved by Nora’s mother Marjorie and collected by the Foundation. Leventhal and Nora would manage the archive together. Marjorie had been a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and Nora had thrived as a professional dancer, touring the world with her own dance company. Now, after a dozen years performing the role of mommy, Nora was ready to impose order on her father’s disheveled and deteriorating legacy, much as her mother had endeavored to do with the life it chronicles.
For Nora, the point is to make things easier to find, and to allow greater access with less risk of wear and tear. Nora’s plan for Woody is not just to unlock his life, but to actively send him out again among ordinary people. “Since 1950,” she says, “all we know about him is what someone else wants us to know about him. Whoever was in the room at the time; whoever was interested at the time.”
Biographer Joe Klein was more interested than most. His book Woody Guthrie: A Life, published in 1980, looks unflinchingly beneath the legend to reveal the kaleidoscopic adventures and misadventures that comprised his impulsive life, including their more sordid aspects as well Guthrie’s undeniable contributions to our understanding of life below decks, in the fields and on the street.
Klein’s literate and entertaining biography makes plain the extent to which the Guthrie canonized in the ’60s folk revival had long been superseded by a sophisticated observer and obsessive documenter of the internal life of an eccentric and afflicted man. Out of print for some time, Woody Guthrie: A Life is to be reissued in January 1999. Nora points out, though, that even Klein “goes in there as a human being. He pulls out everything that turns him on and leaves alone everything that doesn’t.”
Seditious in death as in life, Guthrie seems never to have stopped knocking down the walls that constrain people, including those built around him. “Woody wasn’t just loved and appreciated in a small circle of folk musicians,” says Nora. “When someone like Joey Ramone says, ‘Man, I really dig your father’ — try and put that together! Tim Robbins used a cut of Woody’s in the end credits of a film. I went to another film opening, Reality Bites, and Jerry Stiller came up with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Oh, I loved your father’. Then the next minute Ethan Hawke comes up and says, ‘Oh my God, you’re Nora Guthrie, I love your dad.’ And it blew my mind. Here was a young actor in the X generation and then Jerry Stiller, Joey Ramone, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Tim Robbins…and basically I was just getting the message Woody seems to have touched a lot of people that I don’t know about.”
This led to a new priority. “My job is, if you really sincerely love his work, let’s do something. I don’t want to ask what instrument you play, what’s your race or religion or country, or what category in Tower Records your CDs fit into.