My earliest memory of Woody Guthrie is not one that fits so easily with the image of a man who was a tireless activist for the rights of the underprivileged, a man who sang for those who were taken advantage of, a self-identified communist at the height of the red scare, the man who is at least partially responsible for inspiring a young Robert Zimmerman to start writing songs of his own (which in turn inspired countless others who also went on to inspire countless others). No, my quaint first memory of Woody Guthrie is of singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in elementary school music class. At the time I knew nothing of the radicalism inherent in Guthrie’s work, and it wouldn’t be for years that I would discover it.
The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that Woody Guthrie, the songwriter, has become an integral part of our American culture, and the hard edges of his messages more or less urging a full-on socialist revolt have been softened. If you really think you know America, you have to know Woody Guthrie.
A nagging thought in the back of my mind while listening to this album; where are the Woody Guthries of today? The music here was in parts largely contemporary despite the fact that it was built upon words that were written about six decades ago. So where are today’s words to fight the injustice of greed, of class warfare, of neglect, issues that are even more prevalent now than they were in Guthrie’s time or any other time in American history since the abolishment of slavery? We need more people like him who are willing to say what needs to be said, and someone who can express it in a way that those without a voice of their own cannot.
Anyway, on to the music itself, an extremely mixed bag if I’ve ever heard one. This project is a collection of bits of text and lyrics that have been set to music by a number of today’s ‘folk’ singers, a term that could be applied to any number of genres as it really refers more to an underlying message in the music than it does any true musical, aesthetic approach. The text itself largely comes from the time period around the second World War, and is but a smattering of the output that Guthrie produced in his lifetime; he was well-known for his prolificacy.
The album starts off strong with more of a tone poem than song, the titular track by Van Dyke Parks. It’s an interesting piece, accompanying the snippet of text by Guthrie related in the liner notes about how humans are machines themselves, machines not made for labor but made so they can hope. Parks’ arrangement relies on traditional folk instrumentation to create a kind of ‘folk orchestra’, achieving through the use of banjos, mandolins etc. the same thing that a classical composer would through the use of strings, brass etc; that is, to convey a certain emotion. The emotion here is indeed one of hope, one of resolute determination in the face of hardship. Good, solid track.
The next few songs showcase a few different artists doing what they do best (for better or for worse); Madeleine Peyroux delivers a fine, mellow jazz/blues number with “Wild Card in the Hole”. Tom Morello’s “Revolutionary Mind” sounds like it could have come from one of his album’s as the Nightwatchman and his approach seems the most traditional (and possibly most successful) of all the acts asked to contribute to the project (with the exception of those who play strictly traditional folk music, like Pete Seeger). Lou Reed mumbles his way through “The Debt I Owe” and makes me wish he still did an inhuman amount of drugs. At least then he would be interesting. Here he just sounds dull; as typical of Reed’s latter day work, this sounds more like a spoken word piece that just so happens to rhythmically match up with the guitar underneath it.
The next track is where it starts getting weird. Woody Guthrie was many things to many people, but this is the first time I’ve heard his work as sex funk, as it is presented in Michael Franti’s “Union Love Juice”. Something about this approach just feels… wrong. I’m sure that, like Morello’s contribution, this would’ve been perfectly appropriate on Franti’s own album, but here it just seems out of place, not just for being a sex jam but for the fact that all the other songs incorporate much more traditional folk instrumentation while this one is propelled by a drum machine. Something tells me that a drum machine is not the kind of machine that kills fascists.
Kurt Welling’s “Peace Pin Boogie” comes next, and it is a mediocre piece. Welling’s background is in the ever-classy world of jazz, and despite the fact that this music was contemporaneous with Guthrie’s folk heyday, the two are, in a way, polar opposites. Music that is, today at least, as class-conscious as jazz sounds a little awkward being attached to the music of a man who was so concerned with destroying the very notion of class. Although, Welling’s performance is decent. Again, in another setting this would work better.
Next comes a track by Ani DiFranco, whom I normally love, but her contribution here is more of a spoken-word piece than a song. Unfortunately she sometimes has a tendency to be far too emotive not only in her singing but in her speaking, and that’s the case here. When someone is always being extremely emotive, they can’t get any more emotive so the entire approach creates a sort of loss of impact. Imagine someone who always whispers; it is much more shocking when they scream, isn’t it? Inversely when someone yells all the time, eventually you get used to them yelling and learn to almost ignore it. If you want to stir something up in the listener, you have to learn to really temper yourself. Studs Terkel gives a fine example of how to do it right on the very next track, “I Heard a Man Talking”. The guy was pushing a hundred when he recorded his parts, and he most certainly comes off as the most genuine and heartfelt of all the people here—despite the fact that he was not a ‘recording artist’ in the traditional sense—largely because Terkel lived through and fought for the same things that Guthrie did. This track is probably the best on the album, based largely around Terkel’s delivery.
Next comes Nellie McKay’s “Old Folks” followed by Chris Whitley’s “On the High Lonesome”, two songs that, musically, show the range of emotions that Guthrie was capable of. On the one hand, the sweet, quasi-nostalgia of the former and on the latter, the driving venom of frustration. Both decent tracks.
Then comes a song from another important folk icon, Pete Seeger, who collaborates here with celebrated banjo player Tony Trischka. This is another spoken word piece that reeks with authenticity because the story being related is so close to the one that the singer actually went through. The music is traditional bluegrass which may or may not turn you off. I think, though, that if you are listening to an album associated with Woody Guthrie that you probably either enjoy bluegrass or at least don’t mind it. And really, for those of you condemning bluegrass as “redneck hillbilly music”, you should at least be able to appreciate the musicianship of Tony Trischka, ‘cause he’s pretty damn good by any measure. Another good track.
Finally we have the magnum opus of the album, Jackson Browne’s fifteen minutes of “You Know the Night”, an incredibly detailed recounting of the night that Guthrie met his second wife. Simply put, this goes on for a long, long, time. There isn’t very much musical variety here, just the same 4/4 beat the whole way through and the same sparse harmonic accompaniment. Maybe other people will like this. I can see how others would appreciate the storytelling here, but as a piece of music it just bored me, mostly because it just goes on and on and on.
So if I had to base this purely on the lyrics I would give it a much higher rating. But there is music here, too. And it isn’t always successful and/or appropriate in this context. Some of it just goes too far into directions that don’t make sense to me. But then again, maybe I’m reading this wrong. Maybe the fact that there are the genres of folk, hip-hop, jazz, piano ballads, etc. all represented here is a testament to the amorphous abilities of Guthrie’s work and its ability to pervade the various strains of American culture. Be that as it may, I have to grade this on listenability, not necessarily perceived social relevance. So that’s why it gets a 5/10. The words alone are powerful, but maybe not as powerful as other songs that are sung in elementary schools to this day. Maybe this should be a lesson to archivists of folk songs, folk writings, words in general; despite the fact that Guthrie is among the most important American writers of the 20th century, not everything he ever wrote is gold. It is not necessary to place all of it in a public forum.
For those of you who want to hear some Woody Guthrie songs, but for some reason don’t want to actually hear them performed by the man himself, I would suggest picking up the two volumes of Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. They’re more interesting and for the most part more consistent than this.