On using Wilco and Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue to teach Of Mice and Men

Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck all in one lesson plan.
Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck all in one lesson plan.

Tyler Flory is a teacher at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins. His Music Class column ties together his job and his music fandom in a neat little package.

I use music in my classroom to lower the stress level and to change the mood. During the previous two weeks, my students had quite a bit of work for English class. They were reading, annotating, completing quizzes, writing journal entries, and taking notes on commas. They needed a short-ish break.

So I called upon Woody Guthrie, and then Wilco and Billy Bragg's interpretations of Guthrie. We had just finished John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice and Men. As we read, we focused on George and Lennie, their American Dream, Steinbeck's play-like structure, and his use of imagery. My class was ready to think of the book as a whole instead of the sum of its parts, and contrast the novel with Guthrie's lyrics.

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I dug through my list of Guthrie songs and I settled on "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good to Know You)." I tell my class that Guthrie and Steinbeck were writing during the same time period, and then play the song and ask them to listen for connections.

"This is like George and Lennie's story," says one student. "They keep traveling around."

Another student notes that it was similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the dust is taking over everything and the Joads had to keep moving.

"It's also like when [spoiler alert] George kills Lennie at the end of the book. He doesn't have a choice but to do it. It's been good, but he has to 'move along.'"

"Excellent," I say. "What's going on in the actual song?"

"His voice sounds calm," notes a student.

"What else?"

"It's only acoustic guitar and his voice," remarks another.

"And why is that important? What was going on at this time?" I ask.

"Everyone was traveling. It would be easy for him to travel with only an acoustic guitar."

"Exactly. He was doing the same thing that George and Lennie did. He traveled around. singing about the times he was living in."

Unfortunately, Guthrie is now just a blip in a history textbook. Our current musical culture is so inundated with genres and subgenres that Guthrie is pushed to the sidelines. I could play five of his songs in a row, my students could have made the same general connections to Of Mice and Men for all of them, and I would have had a nice lesson, but I would have surely bored a good portion of my class.

Fifteen years ago, Billy Bragg was asked to make an album using lyrics from Guthrie's old notebooks. It was said that Guthrie left over a thousand sets of complete lyrics that lacked any specific musical instruction. Bragg called Wilco and now we have three albums of Guthrie lyrics set to modern arrangements.

I like using music from these albums, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, for this unit because I think that Bragg and Wilco are doing something similar to what I am trying to do with my classes as we read Of Mice and Men; we are trying to read the book using two contexts. At the beginning of the class I hand my students a packet with a few choices of songs, knowing that we wouldn't get to all of them.
The first is Steinbeck's original context. He wrote about the people and issues of his time. He covers themes of friendship, travel, and the American Dream in lots of his works, but dates them to a specific time when a small farm of your own was the American Dream. The second is our own current context. Inside the 110 pages of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck deals with friendship, employment, race, and guns. All of these issues come up in our lives on a daily basis. Bragg and Wilco put their own personal spin on Guthrie's lyrics, but by doing so, they show us how close the past is connected to the present.

The first track I play is one that will forever be linked to George and Lennie in my mind, "California Stars." The song opens with an acoustic guitar, but it quickly becomes more complicated. There's a floating piano line followed by twangy, distant guitars, and drums that that sound as if they were recorded in a warehouse. As the vocals enter we hear the same desperation as all the men have in Steinbeck's novel.

As the song finishes, a student notes that it is "always moving." Another says that it reminds her of George and Lennie lying on the grass. As Jeff Tweedy sings that he would "like to rest my heavy head" or "lay my weary bones tonight/On a bed of California stars," we hear the longing of those who suffered through the dust bowl. By the end he is making deals to trade his soul for one night with his companion on a bed of these stars. In classic Tweedy style, he gives us hope and breaks our hearts at the same time.

Just by looking at the lyrics they choose "One by One," another tune from Mermaid Avenue Volume 1, to listen to next. If we had any hope, it was gone after listening to this one. This is the story of a man who has lost everything.

One student hits the nail on the head saying that the song is "slow, soft, and sad." Another student notes that the song is filled with the same regret that George has at the end of the book. I read my favorite lines aloud: "One by one, my hair is turning grey/One by one by dreams are fading fast away." I am instantly reminded of my own mortality and the line crushes me the same way the end of the book does. (The end of the book crushes my students too, whether or not they would like to admit it.) Tweedy, knowingly or not, is able to give us the same sentiment in this song.

At this point my students are a bit antsy (knowing that they have work time on their impending essays later in class), but I want to play one last song. "Another Man's Done Gone" is the Bragg and Wilco composition most similar to Guthrie's style. It's 96 seconds of slow piano, heartfelt lyrics, and Tweedy's voice on the brink. When the song is over my classes sit in silence for a bit.

"What connections can you make to the book?" I ask.

"The opening lines 'Sometimes I think I'm going to lose my mind/but it don't look like I ever do' reminds me of George and how George is always being bothered by Lennie," states one student.

"Great," I respond. "That second line tells us a lot. We see George upset with Lennie at the beginning of the book when no one is around, but how does he act at the ranch?"

"Normal. He doesn't show his anger."

"Perfect." I answer. "What's the last stanza like?"

"When George killed Lennie at the end."

"Yes! Let me read the last three lines, 'So when you think of me, if and when you do/Just say, well, another man's done gone/Well, another man's done gone.'" And with the pain of Steinbeck, Guthrie, Tweedy, and Bragg I send them off to work on their essays. It's not the most uplifting lesson, but we were all left dreaming about heading west and tending to our own rabbits.

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