When Billy Bragg and Wilco released Mermaid Avenue way back in 1997 I didn't know all that much about Woody Guthrie's vast catalog of work. There was a huge collection of songs and poems all written from his hospital stays. Much of the work had been offered to Dylan in the 60's but remained below anyone's radar.
Starting in 1996, twenty-nine years after Guthrie’s death, first Bragg and then Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett began to sift through the pages, looking for the lyrics that spoke to them, that needed to be heard, that were just too good to leave to the archives.
In the documentary Man in the Sand, that details Billy Bragg and Wilco's project to turn the forgotten Woody Guthrie lyrics into songs, Bragg visited Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, trying to get some idea of what inspired Woody's songs. As Bragg wanders through the now deserted streets, talks to folks, and even discovers what's left of Guthrie's birthplace that's now just pieces of wood stacked in the corner of a local shop, he chats with the owner of an antique store, hoping to find anything that might bring some light to Guthrie's early life as an Okie before he started his journey across the country writing about his adventures. Delighted to show Bragg a link to Guthrie, the owner pulls out a sign displayed in front of the store that identifies Okemah as Woody's hometown.
The sign was in bad shape, Woody's name was covered with spray paint and the words "Commie Red A Draft Dogger" in it's place. The vandals couldn't spell but the message was certainly clear.. This was how Woody was to be remembered in his home town and state many years after he died.