CHICAGO — Decades ago, Woody Guthrie wrote the sparse lyrics for a song he never got around to recording, “New Multitudes,” a plea to future generations to stay the course: “Give me my new multitudes/ Gonna build my world over/ Gotta have new multitudes.”
His words have been heard. “New Multitudes” (Rounder) is the title of a new album of Guthrie lyrics set to music by a handful of contemporary artists, including Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames (aka Jim James), Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson and Anders Parker. Farrar turns the title song into an atmospheric mantra, a prayer not just for the future but for right now.
Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring. An economic slump that lingers like a toothache. Is it any wonder that the music of Woody Guthrie, born 100 years ago July 14, has stuck around?
Guthrie died in 1967, leaving behind thousands of songs, fragments and journal entries that have never really gone out of style. They continue to resonate, as the latest surge of Guthrie-inspired music-making affirms:
—At the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen framed the concert that kicked off his E Street Band world tour with Guthrie songs. Springsteen’s latest album, “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia), is essentially an electric folk album, inspired by the Guthrie who saw and wrote about two visions of America: one defined by inclusion, and another divided along lines of class, race and economics.
—This month, Nonesuch Records will release “Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions,” a box-set of the 1997-98 recording sessions in Chicago and Dublin in which Billy Bragg and Wilco created music for Guthrie lyrics. The two “Mermaid Avenue” albums (released in 1998 and 2000) sparked renewed interest in Guthrie’s life and music, and the box will include 17 previously unreleased tracks.
—In the “Mermaid Avenue” tradition, “New Multitudes” arrives as the first of a projected two volumes of new recordings built on archived Guthrie lyrics. The Farrar-James-Johnson-Parker New Multitudes group is also scheduled to appear July 28-29 at the Newport Folk Festival, along with members of Guthrie’s extended family and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello in his Guthrie-esque Nightwatchman guise.
—Morello will headline “This Land is our Land!,” a concert May 19 in Chicago celebrating Guthrie’s music. He’ll be joined Jon Langford, Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Toshi Reagon, Son del Viento, Bucky Halker and Kevin Coval.
—Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, will stage a centennial tribute concert to his father Aug. 19 at Ravinia with Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Why does the music of the Oklahoma-born troubadour endure? The easy hook is that he is the go-to icon for troubled times, the agit-folkie who wrote a protest song for every finger-pointing occasion. But there’s more to it than that. He was a multi-faceted artist whose songs spanned human experience; he told hard truths not just about the empowered but about himself. He had doubts, insecurities and moments of weakness, a complexity that made him more human, his songs more relatable.
“I don’t think Woody Guthrie was necessarily a political songwriter,” Steve Earle once told the Chicago Tribune. “He just happened to be a songwriter in politically charged times. He wrote about what was in the air, what was around him.”
Guthrie got around. He rode with hobos on cross-country trains and mingled with laborers and immigrants struggling to make a buck during the Depression. In 1943 he joined the Merchant Marines and saw war first-hand. He lived among the subjects in his songs and he wrote daily — lyrics, poems, journal entries — about their struggles and disappointments.
The most mythologized of the Guthrie personas is the folkie who put a sticker on his acoustic guitar that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Springsteen and Morello have long championed Guthrie the political rabble-rouser, and their music has a hard political edge notably missing from that of many of their mainstream peers.
Morello spent his week at South by Southwest in Austin playing shows with the words “Whatever It Takes” taped to his acoustic guitar in homage to Guthrie’s “machine.” Last year, Morello released two folk-protest albums, “Union Town” and “World Wide Rebel Songs” (New West). At times Morello’s earnestness as sloganeer can overwhelm his best intentions. But Morello’s guitar is indeed a lethal weapon. He joined Springsteen several times during the singer’s South by Southwest concert, and his guitar solo during Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (named after Guthrie’s powerful “Tom Joad,” a character in John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”) was galvanizing.
Like Guthrie, Morello walks the walk. He has appeared at Occupy protests around the world and helped draw national attention last year to the fight by Wisconsin unions against pay cuts and rights restrictions by singing at a rally in Madison.
Morello joined Springsteen for the finale of his Austin concert, a moving version of Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” It’s become a feel-good anthem, but Springsteen and Morello made sure to include Guthrie’s most caustic, often-omitted verses, a reminder that the troubadour’s anthem was as much a protest as a promise: “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me/ A sign was painted said: Private Property/ But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/ This land was made for you and me.”
Guthrie wrote the song in 1940, painting a vision of what America should be even as he asserted that it doesn’t always measure up. In a presidential election year riven by debate over such principles — touching on race, class, immigration and distribution of wealth — “This Land is Your Land” remains disquieting in its timeliness.
That legacy underlines not only Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball,” but a number of songs from the Wilco-Bragg “Mermaid Avenue” sessions. One of the previously unreleased tracks from the “Mermaid” box is “Jolly Bankers,” about a greedy lender, which Wilco transforms into a country waltz with a deceptively breezy air: “When your car you’re losin’, and sadly your cruisin’/ I’m a jolly banker, jolly banker am I/ I’ll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes/ Singin’ I’m jolly banker, jolly banker am I.”
Many of Guthrie’s songs had an upward sweep to them, a we’re-all-in-this-together sense of community. But he also injected a personal complexity that went beyond the black-and-white choices presented in countless protest anthems by lesser artists.
“Lots of songs I make up when I’m laughing and celebrating make folks cry and songs I make up when I’m feeling down and out make people laugh,” Guthrie once wrote. “Those two upside down feelings (have) got to be in any song to make it take a hold and last.”
His songs had backbone, a righteous, moral foundation. But there was ambiguity and intimacy too. It was that vibe that attracted Wilco and Bragg to Guthrie’s music.
“I’m not into Woody the icon,” Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy said at the time. “I’m into Woody the freak weirdo.”
Bragg and Wilco dug up songs that showed the full range of Guthrie’s interests: children’s songs (“Hoodoo Voodoo”), mortality (“One by One,” “Remember the Mountain Bed”), lusty fantasy (“Ingrid Bergman”), surrealism (“Someday Some Morning Sometime”), a painterly portrait of “California Stars.”
Taken together, you’ve got multitudes — not a herd, but a vast collection of individuals. Guthrie’s Everyman songs tried to make room for them all.
At a South by Southwest panel, Arlo Guthrie explained why his father’s music endures: “Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don’t think we’re actually celebrating Woody — we’re celebrating us. That’s the genius of the man.”