America loves its legends. We mythologize historical figures, musicians, directors, anyone, and Woody Guthrie is no different. The folk singer of the early to mid 20th century—who wrote “This Land Is Your Land”—is remembered mostly for his politics and country travelin’ ways, but English folk musician Billy Bragg and American band Wilco decided to capture a different view of the man in their album Mermaid Avenue, which saw the artists taking melody- and music-less lyrics and creating songs out of them.
The result is a portrait of Guthrie that does reveal the politics, but also the humanity. He sings about Ingrid Bergman with bawdiness and clever word play; he wonders solemnly if his world-voyaging lover might find someone else. The portrait of Guthrie is raw; the resultant album is incredible, and one of my personal favorites. The documentary Man in the Sand aims to similarly capture the making of the album, with varying success.
First, though, a few words on Mermaid Avenue. Forgive my indulgence, but this an album that received the documentary treatment for a reason: besides the unique roots of its creation, the music is incredible. It ranges from pop-folk ballads like “California Stars,” to tear-inducing, melancholic songs like “Birds and Ships” sung by Natalie Merchant, to political tunes like the proto-feminist “She Came Along to Me.” Each one is catchy and beautifully constructed from a musical standpoint, with lyrics as strong as the best from one of America’s greatest songwriters. Whether you like folk or hate it, whether you care about Guthrie or have never heard his name before, I think this album can speak to all kinds of music fans because, much like Guthrie’s music, it is honest and engaging. The movie’s desire to demystify some of the process behind creating it, to me, represents Bragg and Wilco’s attempts to personify the album’s subject.
The movie’s main focus is to outline the album’s roots, with Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, contacting Bragg to sift through the thousand or so song lyrics that her father wrote but did not write down the music for, as he was self-taught and couldn’t write music. Bragg brings in Wilco, including its talented lead singer, Jeff Tweedy. Instead of simply narrating this past, though, we see how these people produced such an album. We don’t just hear, “Guthrie grew up in Okfuskee,” but rather we follow Bragg through America and listen to him discuss what Guthrie means to him. We see the actual process of taking these lyrics and creating music. One particularly strong moment is when Bragg is trying to wax poetic about his motivations, and his son comes in the room to continually interrupt with questions about the camera equipment. Man in the Sand a human documentary.
That being said, it does occasionally settle for simply giving the backstory of the process, and in doing so becomes less of a universal documentary and more so a “making of” story that limits the appeal to either Guthrie fanatics or those familiar with the album. That is probably typical of “making of” docs, but I think that Man in the Sand goes just a little beyond that due to its sincere take to portray everyone as everyday people, which inherently demythologizes but allows for understanding.
Man in the Sand is not to documentaries what Mermaid Avenue is to music, but it’s great for anyone looking to learn about an American folk fixture and/or an album that made serious waves when it was released. If nothing else, I recommend you listen to a few tracks from the album, because it might lead you down a ribbon of highway that explores American culture’s roots, endless skyways, and golden valleys.
And, for the curious, here’s a song.