Mermaid Avenue is a 1998 album of previously unheard lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco. The project was organized by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. Mermaid Avenue was released on June 23, 1998. The project is named after a song “Mermaid’s Avenue” written by Guthrie. This was also the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York on which Guthrie lived. According to American Songwriter Magazine, “The Mermaid Avenue project is essential for showing that Woody Guthrie could illuminate what was going on inside of him as well as he could detail the plight of his fellow man.”
During the spring of 1992, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics after Bragg played a Guthrie tribute concert in New York City’s Central Park. Her father had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; none of these lyrics had any music other than a vague stylistic notation. Nora Guthrie’s liner notes in Mermaid Avenue indicate that it was her intention that the songs be given to a new generation of musicians who would be able to make the songs relevant to a younger generation. Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg, who in turn approached Wilco and asked them to participate in the project as well. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in Ireland, they were given their own share of songs to finish.
Rather than recreating tunes in Guthrie’s style, Bragg and Wilco created new, contemporary music for the lyrics. What seemed like a risky enterprise surprised everyone; released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue, the results were met with universal acclaim. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998. In 2008, Jonatha Brooke released The Works, a project that similarly drew on the trove of unpublished Guthrie material. According to Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, Woody Guthrie offered his unpublished songs to Dylan but was unable to enter the house to obtain them as Arlo Guthrie would not let him in. Man in the Sand, a documentary about the collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco, was released in 1999.