To mark Woody Guthrie's 110th birthday, this issue reprints a Radio Silence (RIP) essay pegged to the third volume of Mermaid Avenue and several other releases. Guthrie's words keep on inspiring, and as his shadow lengthens, most of Wilco's and Bragg's catalog now nestles inside this new context.
IN THE EARLY 1990s, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of the famous songwriter, came across a shoebox full of her father's letters. Leafing through his notes, she soon found more boxes and was quickly overwhelmed. "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," she wrote in her liner notes to Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. Suddenly Guthrie's legend began talking an entirely new language, saying things even his daughter never suspected. "I had just discovered that he had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant," she continued, "that he felt sorry for Hanns 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."
She blushed at reading her father's intimate creative diaries. "There's maybe... three people that had ever looked through these files and boxes of my dad's stuff that had been sitting around for forty years," she told an interviewer. But alongside that came the shock of the sheer volume of work Guthrie had left behind, which more than tripled his already prodigious output between 1939 and 1952, when he began to wither from Huntington's disease.
The lyrics predated this melody by decades, and yet the result sounds almost pre-ordained, as if baked into some parallel rock history.
Nora decided to seek out musicians to help extend all this new material. The leftist punk-rocker Billy Bragg had already been poking around the Smithsonian archives, chatting up archivist Jeff Place. Although British, Bragg appealed to Nora Guthrie's counterintuitive impulses.
"One of the things I really liked about Billy was he didn't come with a lot of baggage," Nora explained. "And I don't mean that in a critical sense, but he really didn't know that much about Woody. Here we're discovering lyrics about topics that were so un-Dust Bowl balladeer, un-Grand Coulee Dam, even un-folk song.... So I wanted to work with someone who didn't have a lot of history with Woody in one sense and didn't have a lot of shoulds; what Woody should sound like, what Woody Guthrie should be like, what a Woody Guthrie album should be."
That gauzy Guthrie myth—Johnny Appleseed with a guitar—obscures a more complicated, richly layered, and expansive stylistic reach than his best-known songs imply.
At first, Bragg simply assumed that anything by Guthrie had PROPERTY OF BOB DYLAN stamped on it. But Nora persuaded him that Guthrie's legacy deserved a new generation of artists and listeners. Her approach had more than a dash of inspiration: What could be more predictable than Dylan setting Guthrie's words?
Bragg suggested Wilco as collaborators, and recording took place over a heated two months in Chicago and Dublin between late 1997 and early 1998. Nobody expected things to move so quickly, much less forty-seven tracks to appear from the improbable matchup.
"Billy and Wilco single-handedly burst through time itself," Nora said, "altering every previous perception anyone ever had about Woody Guthrie—his look, his language, his tone, his rhythm, his purpose, his heart and soul. All of our thoughts about him have now been forever altered in some way..."
On the edge of turning 80, in front of 75,000 fans recently at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and then a week later at Glastonbury, Paul McCartney invited Bruce Springsteen up onstage to sing “Glory Days.” YouTubers the world over have since joined in the swoon. Somehow, even though the song came out in 1984, it lassoed all the Beatles memories studding the McCartney set as well as its legacy. The sight of two senior citizens playing youth music to an adoring crowd gave rock history another shudder of wonder at how far the style has gone, and how unlikely it was to turn out like this.
To pay tribute to McCartney’s longevity, the online magazine Stereogum solicited favorite songs from 80 artists for a roundup of what makes his music so disarming, and the results proved bemusing, delicious, and downright silly. A quick scan of the material shows a skew into his lackluster solo career (with obvious choices like “Let Me Roll It” but no “Mull of Kintyre”), 60's staples like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Let It Be” and “Long and Winding Road” but not “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Eight Days A Week,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” or “Two of Us,” for SHAME. McCartney has become famous for many reasons and very few we all agree upon; that famous Beatles consensus has splintered into a thousand new opinions...