39. Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key – Woody Guthrie

Thank you all for singing these songs…it’s kind of like a sci-fi vaccination, awakening 50 year old sleeping lyrics with everyone’s various kisses and loving touches. Thank you for bringing my father’s songs to life — Nora Guthrie

In the spring of 1995, Nora Guthrie, daughter of American folk pioneer Woody Guthrie, approached Billy Bragg with an idea.

After his death in 1967, Woody had left behind hundreds of songs, written at his home in Mermaid Avenue, Long Island. Written yet unrecorded, and with scant hints as to their music.

The idea was to resurrect these lost songs for a new generation.

Cover of 'Mermaid Avenue' by Billy Bragg & Wilco

Over the next few years, Billy pored over the extensive archives and, in collaboration with perennial US alt-country rockers Wilco, set a number of the songs to music, and set to recording them.

The result was 1998’s Mermaid Avenue. 15 songs ranging from the nonsense verse of Hoodoo Voodoo, written for Woody’s children, to Ingrid Bergman, a lasciviously unrequited ode to the Swedish screen sex bomb. Two further volumes have subsequently been released, and to do it justice, the Mermaid Avenue project probably deserves a longer, dedicated piece written about it.

Well, this isn’t it, not yet. Instead, as per the site rules—which I totally made up once—I have to choose a song. It could easily be any song from the album, but I’ve chosen Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.

This is the first track I ever heard from the album, no doubt via Bob Harris, and remains a favourite. It’s a nice fit here because it’s a song about the life-affirming power of song.

Woody grew up in a town called Okemah, capital of Okfuskee County, Oklahoma:

I lived in a place called Okfuskee

This is very much the territory which will be familiar to anyone who has read Woody’s memoirs, Bound for Glory. In a hollow tree in Okfuskee he meets a nice young lady:

She said it’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me

An inauspicious start perhaps, but straight away we see the defiance, the strength that music brings. “I ain’t got much, but I can sing.”

Things seem to pick up, by and by, as Woody and the girl walk and talk by the creek, particularly enjoying watching carnivorous wildlife, while Woody turns on his own hungry charms. Perhaps things start to go too well for her mother’s liking:

Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it onto she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me

Again, we see the power of song as a painkiller, both emotional and physical. And as the years go by, the ladies do seem to remain convinced:

Now I have walked a long long ways
And I still look back to my tanglewood days
I’ve led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying, ain’t nobody that can sing like me

The recorded song is beautifully arranged. Billy sings, accompanied by members of Wilco, and edifying harmonies courtesy of the incomparable Natalie Merchant. Reading the liner notes, I also see Eliza Carthy on violin. It’s all a bit of a treat for the music nerd, really.

Billy Bragg was clearly a inspired choice to be the interpreter of these songs: as a lifelong Woody Guthrie fan, not to mention something of a kindred spirit with Woody, both musically and politically, he just gets it. Moreover, he’s just really good at songs and music and stuff.

It’s truly wonderful to be able to enjoy such important, valuable music which might otherwise have gone unheard.

Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Album: Mermaid Avenue
Writer: Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg
Producer: Wilco & Billy Bragg with Grant Showbiz
Released: Elektra, 1998

One thought on “39. Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key – Woody Guthrie

  1. Michael Tarrant

    Thanks for the detailed explanation. I heard the song performed by some of the actors in a series on Paramount +.
    I immediately thought it was a traditional song but couldn’t place it.
    A quick search online and it came up with Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg. How can this be? I wondered. All is now clear and I then realised that I actually have the album ‘Mermaid Avenue’ but have not listened to it for years. Better seek it out.

    Reply

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