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Man in the Sand

Sometimes I think I´m gonna lose my mind
But it don´t look like I ever do
I loved so many people everywhere I went
Some too much, others not enough

I don´t know, I may go down or up or anywhere
But I feel like this scribbling will stay

Maybe if I hadn't seen so much hard feelings
I might not could have felt other people´s
So when you think of me, if and when you do,
Just say, well, another man's done gone
Just say, well, another man´s done gone

This clip is from the fabulous documentary, Man in the Sand, about the making of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue record. Mermaid Avenue is the first in what has become a small series of recordings by artists tapped by Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora to set unrecorded Guthrie lyrics to music. After his death, it was discovered that Woody had left behind 1000 some lyrics that had never been recorded as songs with music.

I watched Man in the Sand last night on Netflix. I've loved Mermaid Avenue since it came out in 1998 but did not realize this documentary about the making of the record has been around nearly as long. It's really, really good. It's a like a diamond in the rough. So many sparkling, unpretentious moments of beauty. (Though it also grapples with the pretentiousness of Guthrie and of the artists who participated in the Mermaid Avenue recordings.)

The film worked on me emotionally on so many levels. The movie begins with Billie Bragg's quest for Woody's America, in an attempt to understand Woody well enough to approach the daunting responsibility of giving musical life to his unrecorded lyrics. These scenes and others throughout the film are deeply evocative of the times my father lived through and the left politics that shaped my family's experience and world view.

Then there are all the approaches to Woody.

Bragg's approach to Woody's America, which I already mentioned.

Woody's daughter Nora's approach to her father---how she has used her work as her father's archivist and as the midwife to the musical rebirthing of his songs to come to know him better and in ways that were not possible for her during his short lifetime; he was ill with Huntington's disease most of the time she knew him and he died when she was 17. Inter-cut with scenes of Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and others recording Woody's lyrics are scenes of Nora speaking intimately, often fighting back her tears, about her family life, both her childhood memories of it and what she has come to understand later as a historian.

Arlo Guthrie appears in just one brief sequence---to recount how he learned that This Land Is Your Land was by his father one day when it was taught to him at school. He recalls running home in tears because the other kids knew his own father's song better than he did. Woody was already ill and not playing much music. But Woody, with physical difficulty, showed Arlo the chords and helped him learn to play it. So much of Woody's tragic complexity is in this brief story, which Arlo caps with a slightly coy rendition of one of the now famously long suppressed verses of the song.

Another tragedy that the film is now echo for is the untimely death of Wilco's Jay Bennett, who died very unexpectedly this past May at age 45. While there are many other evocative scenes from the film that I wish I could have found on YouTube, this one is lovely, with Tweedy's vocal more spare and plaintive than on the Mermaid Avenue version, accompanied just by Bennett, whose lovely piano playing is out of frame until the camera tracks around to the position where you can see the both of them in frame.

In many of the scenes with Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy and the others from Wilco and with Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris, it looked to me like they, as well as others involved in the project, kept getting these jolts, as if they are repeatedly startled by beauty they are finding in Woody's poetry and in the music it has inspired in them.

The film coveys the often painful contradictions among noble human values, the exultations of human creativity and the flawed humanity of the people who fight for equality and freedom and try to make enduring, beautiful things. It shows these many dimensions in Woody and in the people who came together to make more of his songs known and make him more knowable to us as an artist, as a social conscience and as a man.

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