Terra Sigillata

Billy Bragg follow-up

Thanks, all, for sharing in my initial disappointment with missing Stetson Kennedy’s 90th b’day party and then the happy accident of being home to take the call from Billy Bragg yesterday afternoon.

My response to the comments began to grow so lengthy that I felt it necessary to create a whole new blog post.

Here is the original post and here is the beginning of the comments – my responses:

Sweetpea: The only think I can think of that would be better than sharing wine with you and Erleichda would be to strum a real Martin – I’ve only been able to afford a couple of Taylors, myself. We will all grace your humble abode before too long, I’m sure!

Doc Porter: Well, you simply must have the Mermaid Avenue albums, with the first being required! If you told me in 1997 about the idea to put music to old Woody Guthrie lyrics, I could think of a million reasons how it could’ve gone badly – but it was spectacular. But Bragg’s spirit and kindred soul with Guthrie combined with Wilco’s Americana influence made both albums come our splendidly. Even Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris got into the act and brought love and emotion to this most prolific songwriter whose gifts extended well beyond, This Land is Your Land.

Btw, Bragg’s first collaboration with Guthrie was not on Mermaid Ave; instead it started back in May, 1991, when Bragg was to play a show in Charleston, WVA, for striking mine workers after a gig in Baltimore. He stopped in DC at the Smithsonian Folkways collection at the behest of a friend who said he really needed to see the diversity of Guthrie’s artistic work. As he said in the preface to “Art Works,” a loving gift of Guthrie drawings and watercolors presented to me last Christmas by the ever-thoughtful and creative PharmSis:

“I’d read the books and sung the songs, I’d seen the photos and heard the records, but there was something of Woody in his drawings and paintings that I’d never seen before.”

“There was a sensuality here, not just in the flowing lines and curving colours, but in the subject matter too. Lovers caressed and bodies entwined. A naked woman took up the whole frame of an illustration, her full figure a blur of shimmying movement. Across the lower part of her body, Woody had written the words, “You woke up my neighborhood.”

“A week later I was in Athens, Georgia, recording with R.E.M. When guitarist Peter Buck asked if I had any lyrics for a tune he had written, Woody’s phrase came to mind. We wrote and recorded the song there and then, music by Buck, lyrics by Bragg, inspiration by Woody G.”

And, hence, the result was Bragg’s, “You Woke Up My Neighborhood.”

My generation thinks of Woody Guthrie as the ‘Dust Bowl Balladeer” and protest singer, but he appears but these accounts to be an incredibly loving partner and devoted father, despite the progressing ravages of what we now know was his Huntington’s disease. Whatever differences emerged between Bragg and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, one cannot deny the emotive and colorful love that springs forth from Tweedy’s rendition of, “Remember the Mountain Bed.” I cannot imagine a lover of any age or gender not feeling moved by those distant words of Mr. Guthrie, delivered with Mr. Tweedy’s steel guitar and desperate, longing vocals.

Prof Dave Ng: Holy frickin’ moly, indeed. I spent the next hour thinking about how stupid I was to have not asked the billions of questions of Mr. Bragg that had accumulated in my amygdala over the last two decades. We all need to keep, “notes to self,” in the event that we meet or talk to any one of the one or two dozen idols that frame our existence, just in case. I, for one, am never prepared.

Prof John Lynch: The Ludlow Massacre Monument itself is incredibly touching but, compared with Arizona, incredibly stark across a breezy, desolate grassland not far off the interstate – amazing that the land around it was so prized less than 100 years ago and worth killing so many people over. My suggestion is for a boys camping weekend, perhaps meeting in ABQ, then driving up I-25 to Ludlow and Rancho Pharmboi to commune with the muses of science and fermentation.

Lab Cat: I had not known you were of UK heritage – I tend to find that scientists with a rich regard for their history are also fans of folk music. Mind you, folk music for us falls round about the punk movement. How amazing to grow up in a household that admired BB – granted, he is now nearly fifty. But dust off those albums and CDs and listen to the messages – social justice is timeless.

etbnc: Many thanks for the most insightful comment:

“So the milkman of human kindness really did leave an extra pint? That’s pretty cool!

And pretty cool that you thought to come by when hosting the Tar Heel Tavern. Everyone, head on over!


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    October 8, 2006

    It is interesting what you say about folk music falling around the punk era, because I associate BB with that era or just past it. There was an active “Rock Against Racism” movement in Britian in the late 70/early 80 and possibly beyond. My brother, who is a few years older, listened to punk and was involved in RAR. My memory, which is rather shakey and might be corrected if BB has an autobiography coming out, was that BB came out from that movement.

    Also, there is a folk revival movement both here in the US and in the UK. Lots of exciting music. I’m totally biased but you should check out The Mammals.

  2. #2 John Lynch
    October 8, 2006

    > My suggestion is for a boys camping weekend, perhaps meeting in ABQ, then driving up I-25 to Ludlow and Rancho Pharmboi to commune with the muses of science and fermentation.

    And I might just take you up on that come Spring/Summer …

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    October 8, 2006


    I’ll bring my ovation and maybe even tune up my mandolin. 🙂

    Practically the only songs are know are folk tunes, plus a little John Prine and Grateful Dead.

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