Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie

July 14 marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birthday.

As part of the festivities, Billy Bragg is touring in support of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, his recordings with Wilco of Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics, and played the Somerville Theater recently.

Bragg's concerts have always included just as much talking as singing, and he devoted his first set to Woody Guthrie material and discussion about it. Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, approached Bragg, a socialist punk-influenced folky, and Wilco with the project out of concern that her father's legacy had been reduced to a 2-dimensional character. Guthrie was known only for writing "This Land Is Your Land" and for influencing Bob Dylan, and Bragg embraced the opportunity to showcase the many aspects of his work. Besides displaying the range of Guthrie's lyrics, he also emphasized the range of Guthrie's life experiences. Although the Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma native is thought to have embodied Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (PS3537.T3234 G7 1993), he lived in Coney Island after WWII, where Bragg explained that his life resembled On the Town, the 1949 Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra musical about sailors on leave in New York. In describing a song with the tempo marking "supersonic boogie," Bragg recalled a story from Guthrie's son Joady, that Woody was always fascinated by gadgets and that he asked Joady to bring him an electric guitar when he was hospitalized with Huntington's Disease; Bragg joked that had Guthrie been in better health and lived longer, he could have pissed off Pete Seeger at Newport.

Bragg also commented that Guthrie had become the captive of academics, and that Bragg was thrilled to rescue him. While our Woody Guthrie Centennial does include scholarly analysis of his life, work, and cultural impact, it also includes scores of his songs. So check out some Guthrie scores and breath new life into this American icon.

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