Book Sources - Billy Bragg & Wilco

‘Mermaid Avenue’ is a 1998 album of previously unheard lyrics written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco. The project was organized by Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie. Mermaid Avenue was released on the Elektra Records label on June 23, 1998. A second volume of recordings, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, followed in 2000. The projects are named after a song ‘Mermaid's Avenue’ written by Guthrie. This was also the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York on which Guthrie lived.

During the spring of 1995, Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics. Her father had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; none of these lyrics had any music other than a vague stylistic notation.

Nora Guthrie's liner notes in ‘Mermaid Avenue’ indicate that it was her intention that the songs be given to a new generation of musicians who would be able to make the songs relevant to a younger generation. Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg, who in turn approached Wilco and asked them to participate in the project as well. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in Ireland, they were given their own share of songs to finish.

Rather than recreating tunes in Guthrie's style, Bragg and Wilco created new, contemporary music for the lyrics. What seemed like a risky enterprise surprised everyone; released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue, the results were met with universal acclaim. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998 (right behind Bob Dylan's Live 1966).

According to Bob Dylan's autobiography, ‘Chronicles’, Woody Guthrie offered his unpublished songs to Dylan, but the young singer was unable to get them from Guthrie's family.