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The Federal Bureau of Investigation identified Woodrow Wilson Guthrie as a suspected Communist in June of 1941, nearly 29 years after his mother had named him for a sitting president and less than a week after he had wrapped up work on the federal government payroll. A bureau memo noted other transgressions related to the folk singer, including that he was “said to have failed to make car payments” on the beat-up Pontiac sedan that he was using to ramble through the American West. It is one of the many ironies of Guthrie’s life that he was doing government work of sorts when the San Francisco office forwarded this intelligence to headquarters. In May he had been paid $266.66 by Uncle Sam to tour public works sites along the Columbia River and find the inspiration to write songs that celebrated America’s progress and ingenuity. He did, writing “Roll On Columbia” and several other songs. It turns out the FBI was both right and wrong about Guthrie. He had missed payments on the car, and it was later repossessed. But it seems he never was a member of the Communist Party, though for years he wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper, “The Daily Worker.” “I ain’t a Communist necessarily,” Guthrie wrote in one early column. “But I’ve been in the red all my life.” That line is just a tiny piece of evidence that Guthrie wasn’t so much of a patriot (or traitor) to his country as he was a champion of its people. That much is made abundantly clear at an installation at the National Museum of American History — This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie — and in two remarkable collections of previously unrecorded Guthrie compositions performed by Scottish political-pop icon Billy Bragg and roots-rocking American band Wilco. Both the installation and the discs reveal how funny, prolific and insightful Guthrie was, and why he’s been a profound influence on artists from Bob Dylan, whose very first recorded tune was “Song to Woody,” to Bragg, Ani DiFranco and the Clash. “Woody has been around on the perimeter of pop music ever since 1960, when Dylan went to see him in the hospital,” says Bragg, speaking on the telephone from London. “What this project has done, and what has made me most proud, is it has brought Woody center stage and analyzed the legacy he left to American culture.” Bragg wasn’t old enough or near enough to do as Dylan did — make a pilgrimage to New York to meet Guthrie during the last years of his life, after Huntington’s chorea had sapped him of the ability to perform but before it caused his demise in 1967 at age 55. But Bragg has reanimated those years with “Mermaid Avenue” and “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II,” named after the street in Coney Island where Woody moved with his family in the mid-1940s. Bragg and his cohorts put music to about three dozen songs that Guthrie wrote after his performing years were over, and they have proven enormously popular. The first “Mermaid Avenue” CD, released two years ago, has sold more than a quarter million copies in the United States. The second collection, which at times rocks much harder than the first, while covering a similarly dazzling chunk of Guthrie’s musical terrain, is at least as good as the first. In addition to Bragg’s sometimes folksy, sometimes edgy interpretations of Guthrie lyrics, Wilco brings its country-tinged rock ‘n’ roll muscle to several songs. Singer Natalie Merchant is backup for one song on each CD, and acoustic blues man Corey Harris also contributes. The collections are well-rounded samplers of Guthrie’s songbook: withering dissections of political motives and social problems, lilting ditties written for children, a harmless number about sleeping under the stars and a paean to Joe DiMaggio, as well as gritty, true stories set to music, such as “Hot Rod Hotel,” about a violent night in a fleabag hotel. The bulk of the songs were presented to Bragg by Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. Nora had culled through the mountains of her father’s journals and notebooks to find those songs and select them from what she estimates to be at least 2,000 originals that Guthrie never performed. Bragg wrote music for the lyrics and then collaborated with Wilco and the others during a mammoth recording session in Dublin in 1998 and another in Chicago. He says that many of the songs nearly wrote themselves, as the lyrics and Guthrie’s alliterative, chatty cadence on his existing recordings suggested a likely musical path. Others were more challenging, as Bragg would take a set of lyrics and surgically extract a chorus from it or move elements around. Bragg took “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” a sly piece of lover’s braggadocio, and put it in an easy acoustic setting that includes backup vocals by Merchant and a plaintive violin solo by Eliza Carthy. “That is not the definitive tune,” cautions Bragg. “Woody made up the definitive tune, and that’s lost.” Bragg says one of Guthrie’s notebooks suggested tempos for some of the unwritten songs. While Guthrie wrote that this one should be performed as a waltz and that one in 4:4 time, there was one note that helped Bragg open the doors to his own musical sensibilities, which were formed in part by a love for Dylan’s songwriting and partly by the churning electric energy of early British punk. The song “My Flying Saucer,” which Bragg and Wilco do as a jangling uptempo rocker on “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II,” came with a note from Woody that said it should be done as a “Supersonic Boogie.” “It blew my mind,” says Bragg. “It allowed me to rethink the way the record should sound, allowed me to make the song the way I wanted to.” But while the “Mermaid Avenue” sessions limit themselves to Guthrie’s lost years, the Smithsonian show takes in the whole of his life. Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912 and left home, where his sister had died in a fire and his mother had been institutionalized, to hobo and travel around the Southwest. In 1940, he recorded a dozen or so searing songs capturing the desperation of the Dust Bowl, and went on to record more than 300 tunes including age-old folk ballads, his own children’s songs and many songs based on politics and current events. Such famous folkies as Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were part of the entourage that played with Guthrie at union rallies and fundraisers and hootenannies, as were blues artists including Leadbelly and Brownie McGhee. Over the years, Guthrie rambled just about everywhere in the country, wearing out shoes, guitar strings, wives and friends, writing everything from the startlingly angry “Meanest Man” (recorded on “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II”) to “This Land Is Your Land,” which, despite its seemingly triumphant American theme, was actually a subversive response to “God Bless America.” If that seems implausible, check out the fourth verse to a 1952 revision of the song, where Guthrie ignores the front of a “Private Property” sign, preferring to take his cue from the blank back side as he trespasses on: “This land is made for you and me.” It seems that everywhere he went, Guthrie left something of himself on paper: line drawings of street fights or a forlorn washerwoman, dashed-off paintings, as well as handwritten or typed lyrics, journals, scrapbooks and letters, some to friends and some to an unborn child, “Railroad Pete.” A revealing cross-section of the mountain of words and images he left on paper are on display at the Smithsonian, as well as instruments and photographs, a letter from Leadbelly and various Guthrie witticisms. One display includes clips from the “Army Times” and other newspapers where he found stories of bravery or tragedy, as well as the lyrics he wrote as he turned the stories into song. The show was shuttered for three weeks from mid-July to early August, as curators planned to move in a timely installation on U.S. presidents. But Nora Guthrie and others kicked up some sand, and the show will survive for the rest of its planned run, through Sept. 24. Over the next 18 months, it will continue a Guthrie-esque odyssey to Texas, California, Washington state and Oklahoma. Guthrie’s strumming guitar and talky vocals waft out of speakers set around the show, and a video short offers glimpses of Guthrie performing, his son Arlo Guthrie reading his father’s prose, and commentary from musicians who’ve been inspired by Guthrie and recorded his tunes, including Dylan, Bragg, DiFranco, Bruce Springsteen and U2 singer Bono. Like the “Mermaid Avenue” sessions, the show was the brainchild of Nora Guthrie, who worked closely with Marquette Folley, a project director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Folley says the show tried to capture Guthrie in as many of his well-documented guises as possible, including those that people have missed in much the same way they might have missed the twists in “This Land Is Your Land.” “Nora wanted the world to know her father in a nuanced way as he existed, not just a folk singer from Oklahoma doing Depression-era songs,” says Folley. “He was a columnist, an illustrator, a grand collagist and labor organizer who counted among his friends blues artists, dancers and politicos. He was a renaissance man. An extraordinary, ordinary man.”

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