Happy birthday to Stephen William “Billy” Bragg born on this day in 1957:
To celebrate I’ve pulled out one of my most treasured pieces of vinyl, the 1998 collaboration between Bragg and the band Wilco entitled Mermaid Avenue:
The story behind this record is that Woody Guthrie, suffering from the effects of Huntington’s disease, left over 1000 written sets of lyrics with no music to accompany them. Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Bragg and Wilco and proposed that they take handful of these fully formed lyric sheets and write music for them.
The collaborators agreed that they wouldn’t try to write music that was too folksy or too reminiscent of Guthrie, rather they would right new contemporary styles of music that would go along with the lyrics.
Some of the songs are completed by Bragg alone, some by the members of Wilco solo, others are full blown collaborations between the two.
If you’ve never heard the Mermaid Avenue album I suggest you do. Is one of my all time favorite records! I even went so far as to make a pilgrimage to the actual Mermaid Ave. in Cony Island, New York, where Guthrie and his family lived for a time.
It makes me wonder why I have never sought out any non-Mermaid Avenue Billy Bragg material. I’ll have to put that on my list for next year!