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Song master; 'Mermaid Avenue' discs help celebrate Guthrie's centennial

Last Saturday was Record Store Day, and doubtless, you spent too much money collecting too many ultra-cool exclusive releases at your favorite local independent music retailer. There were so many incredible collectibles thrown our way this year, from a double album of freakishness known as "The Flaming Lips and Fwends," to an amazing pastiche of live Animal Collective tracks released as "Transverse Temporal Gyrus," as well as nifty picture discs from artists as stylistically far-flung as Kate Bush and Iron Maiden.

In fact, the list was almost endless, to the point that you could have reasonably blown your yearly vacation budget, savings and children's college fund in one fell swoop. I hope you didn't, of course, but if you did, and are now being driven by overspender's guilt to the conclusion that you need to sell some of the stuff you bought, cheap well, shoot me an email! Heh heh.

Tucked in among this rich bounty was what may well be my favorite bit of Record Store Day 2012 ephemera -- "Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions," a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics with music by Billy Bragg and Wilco. This package encapsulates remastered editions of "Mermaid Avenue" and "Mermaid Avenue Volume II," plus the never-before-released "Mermaid Avenue Volume III" CDs. It also throws in a DVD of "Man In the Sand," a stirring documentary on the making of the albums.

OK, so this is "old" music now -- the first edition of the Bragg/Wilco recordings came out 15 years ago. But so what? This stuff remains incredibly relevant for so many reasons, not least among them the fact that Bragg and Wilco took tuneless song lyrics discovered by Guthrie's daughter Nora Guthrie and wrote some killer melodies and chord structures around them.

What makes this such a big deal, though, is the fact that this complete collection stands a good chance of introducing a new generation of music consumers to the genius of Woody Guthrie. This year marks the centennial of his birth, right smack dab in the middle of a time when his roughshod poetic voice is perhaps more meaningful and necessary than ever.

Yes, Guthrie is widely known as our nation's first real protest singer, and as such, his songs provide an ample context for something like the Occupy Movement. In fact, when Bruce Springsteen delivered the keynote address at the recent SXSW Music Festival, he invoked Guthrie's name, and made it more than clear that what he has been doing for these many years is, essentially, carrying on Guthrie's work.

Guthrie was more than the working man's conscience and proletarian poet, however. He was a vibrant mess of a man, a creature of immense appetites, as loyal to the lusty flesh as he was to the tenets of the soul and the pricks of the conscience. He smoked, drank, womanized and fought with as much zeal as he loved, cared for, nurtured and protested against. He was a real man. And "Mermaid Avenue" is significant, now and forever, for separating the man from the myth.

Nora Guthrie writes in her liner notes of her initial discovery of her father's unpublished song lyrics.

"I had just discovered that my father had written more song lyrics than any of us could ever imagine. (Over 3,000 when I finally did the count.) I had just discovered that he had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant, that he felt sorry for Hanns Eisler, that he was a proud lush and a comfortable luster, that he believed in flying saucers, that he was homesick for California, that he even knew who Joe DiMaggio was let alone wrote a song about him, or that he once made out with a girl in a tree hollow when, as a kid, he bragged 'there ain't nobody who can sing like me.' "

So Guthrie was Walt Whitman with a guitar, then, a man who giddily embraced the whole human mess, contradictions and all. This makes him more valid to us as flawed human beings ourselves. He wasn't St. Woody but rather a man who struggled through the same dark nights of the soul as the rest of us.

Guthrie once carved the words "This machine kills fascists" on his acoustic guitar. One hundred years after his birth, that simple "machine" can still strike blows against the empire.