Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue (Expanded Edition)

I have tried listening to records by BIlly Bragg and Wilco released without each other, but there was something about them that meant they were never quite made my shopping list. However, I was quite surprised when listening to Bob Geldof on XFM that a song came on which I instantly fell in love with. This was 1998 so I hoped that he would say who the artist was at the end of the record because this was before the internet had really caught on so if I missed it, there was no way I could look it up afterwards to find out who it was. To my (pleasant) surprise, he said that it was Billy Bragg and Wilco. My interest was peaked. 

Going a local record shop (these existed in 1998) and buying the CD (this wasn’t released on vinyl in the UK at that time), I gave it a spin and fell in love with it. The limited sleeves notes in the accompanying booklet told me that all of the lyrics had been written by left wing songwriter Woody Guthrie. In the years since his death, his daughter Nora had been running an archive of her father’s work which included over a thousand sets of lyrics that Guthrie had not recorded himself. Nora had an idea of having a number of contemporary artists record these songs to these lyrics and had asked Billy Bragg to come on board after he had taken part in a Woodie Guthrie tribute concert. Braggs reputation as a left wing activist may also have helped Nora make this decision. Guthrie did not write music and apart from some vague notation, there was little in the way of clues as to what these songs should sound like. The reason these songs were left in this state was down to the fact that Guthrie was suffering from Huntington’s disease, which causes the sufferer to lack co-ordination. That and an injury to his arm in the mid 50’s meant he could no longer play his guitar. Guthrie continued to write lyrics until he was unable to hold a pencil. The songs Guthrie was writing ranged from politics, his fantasy’s about actress Ingrid Bergman, nonsense songs for children and reflections on his own childhood.  

Bragg did not gather together a cast of contemporary musicians to help work on this project apart from American band Wilco, who were given their own set of lyrics to work on. Natalie Merchant also came on board to provide vocals on a couple of the songs. It was mentioned at the time that there was enough material in the can for another album and in 2000, a second volume was released. It was easy to tell that the A-grade material was used on Volume 1, but this was still a good album. It was when the second collection came out that I put together a compilation taking what I considered to be the best tunes from both of these volume into one extended edition. In 2012, a compilation was released that contained Volumes 1 & 2, along with a third disc of additional outtakes. I did not feel that any of these songs were strong enough to make appearance on this collection, which I had been playing off and on since 2000.  

Billy Bragg and Wilco would not be the only artists to make an album using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. The Klezmatics would release two albums in 2006, Jonatha Brooke in 2008 and Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker with Jim James in 2012. This has also lead to other artists such Sandy Denny having their own archives of unreleased lyrics set to music by modern musicians and released as albums. 

The cover is the same as the one used for Volume 1. It did not feel the need anything added to it. The entire collection is available to listen to via Spotify. Enjoy. 

  1. I Was Born
  2. Walt Whitman’s Niece
  3. California Stars
  4. Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key
  5. Birds & Ships
  6. Hoodoo Voodoo
  7. Ingrid Bergman
  8. Secret Of The Sea
  9. I Guess I Planted
  10. At My Window Sad & Lonely
  11. Hesitating Beauty
  12. Another Man’s Done Gone
  13. Hot Rod Hotel
  14. Eisler On The Go
  15. My Flying Saucer
  16. All You Fascists
  17. Joe Dimaggio Done It Again
  18. Feed Of Man
  19. Stetson Kennedy
  20. Remember The Mountain Bed
  21. Black Wind Blowing
  22. Blood Of The Lamb
  23. One By One
  24. The Unwelcome Guest

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