Monday, July 2, 2012

Bragg, Guthrie, Bergman and Rossellini

Recently, I shared a list of my top 100 favorite rock 'n roll albums with my Facebook friends. Making lists is something that hyper-vigilant people, like myself, do to pass the time.  On this list, you might be surprised to find the album Mermaid Avenue: Volume One by Billy Bragg & Wilco creeping close to the top. Every time I hear anything from it, I want to move it up.  I don't use this term lightly, but it might just be a masterpiece. Although, I might just feel that way today because I haven't yet come down from my high of seeing Billy Bragg live last night at the Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT.  

Woody Guthrie wrote over 1,000 songs in his lifetime.  Most of them were not recorded because recording music in the 1930's and 1940's was very expensive, hence rare.  These unrecorded songs don't have music written with them.  We have no idea how Woody would have performed them.  In 1992, Woody's daughter, Nora, contacted British punk musician Billy Bragg about this problem.  She would like these lost songs set to music believing that a new generation of musicians and listeners should be exposed to his songs.  Bragg contacted the American band Wilco (perhaps America's greatest rock band) to help him with the huge undertaking and Natalie Merchant for backing vocals. They ended up recording a lot more than one album's worth with over 50 songs.  What they came up with is Mermaid Avenue Volumes I, II & III.  III was recently released.

I knew all this going into last night's performance.  Last night Billy's first set consisted entirely of Woody Guthrie songs.  I think he may have talked more in between songs than he actually played, which just seems to happen to performers when they play folk music.  During the course of his banter, Billy explained one of my favorite songs on Volume One, "Ingrid Berman." As you probably know Bergman was one of the great Hollywood actresses of the 1940's starring in many Hitchcock films and of course, Casablanca and Gaslight.  Early in her career, when she was in her 20's, she was married to a Swedish dentist, but during the shooting of the film Stromboli, she had a scandalous affair with the director, Roberto Rossellini. This didn't go over well with the prissy American public. Interviews were cancelled and  she was even denounced on the floor of the US Congress.  She eventually marries Rossellini and has two children with him, one of which is the actress Isabella Rossellini, probably most famous for Blue Velvet.  Not only was Woody a great writer of social commentary, but he wrote with some sexual gusto and had a thing for the great actress. Bragg quoted Patti Smith saying something like (paraphrasing) "all great artist write with one hand stuffed down their pants."  I will never be able to listen this song the same way again:

                                 This old mountain it's been waiting
                                 All its life for you to work it
                                 For your hand to touch the hardrock,   
                                 Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman

I probably should listen more closely to lyrics when I sing along.


Margaret Grant said...

I always learn interesting things from you. Great post.

ManOfWow said...

thanks Maggie, my editor (aka wife), just went over it so I made some minor changes. Also, check out the link to the performance. It is exactly the info that I blogged about.