On one of my visits, Woody had told me about some boxes of songs and poems that he had written that had never been set to melodies—that they were stored in the basement of his house in Coney Island and that I was welcome to them. He told me that if he wanted any of them to go see Margie, his wife, explain what I was there for. (page 99)Dylan takes the Brooklyn line out to Coney Island, walks through a swamp to Woody Guthrie's house on Mermaid Avenue and knocks on the door:
A babysitter opened it slightly, said that Margie, Woody's wife, wasn't there…I stayed just long enough to warm up, said a quick good-bye and left with my boots still waterlogged, trudged back across the swamp to the subway platform.I read this passage while thirty-some-thousand feet over the Rockies last December, with my iPod (yes, I'm a tool) playing—wait for it—Wilco.
Forty years later, these lyrics would fall into the hands of Billy Bragg and the group Wilco and they would put melodies to them, bring them to full life and record them. It was all done under the direction of Woody's daughter Nora. These performers probably weren't even born when I had mad the trip out to Brooklyn. (page 100)
I had known about the album's backstory before, but I'd never heard Dylan's story. It'd odd to think that history is so dependent on tiny bits of circumstance. I filed Mermaid Avenue away in my mental to-listen-to queue.
I finally got around to it this week. It's charming. There are some absolute gems—One by One is a moving ballad I remember from last year's Kicking Television. Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key is sparse and a pleasure, as is She Came Along to Me (the "protofeminist love song"—it still makes me smile when I hear the line "And maybe we'll have all the fascists out of the way by then"—the word "fascist" seems like such an anachronism). It's weird to see song credits like Guthrie/Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy was born ten days before Guthrie passed away.