Perhaps no one artist’s songbook serves as a primer for its form more than Woody Guthrie’s does for American folk music. An immortal influence on the genre, tributes to him are constant. Such celebrations would be redundant for a less prolific artist, but the well of Guthrie’s material runs so deep that his songs can be collected in interesting ways. Billy Bragg and Wilco’s famous Mermaid Avenue albums brought Guthrie’s unsung notebooks to glorious musical fruition, while the excellent Daddy O Daddy compilation had artists focusing on his children/family songs.
In the case of John McCutcheon’s This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, the thread seems to be stories of American characters: the historically omnipresent bum of “The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done”, the Robin Hood of bakery truck drivers, “Old Cap Moore”, the unappreciated migrant workers in “Deportees” and the bank robbing folk hero “Pretty Boy Floyd”. The discriminated, the downtrodden, the worker, the traveler—that’s who Guthrie sang for. McCutcheon isn’t remaking Woody’s greatest hits—there is no “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh”, no “Hard Travelin’” and no “Tom Joad”. But there is, however, a setlist that matches the monumental (“This Land is Your Land”) with the obscure (“Mail Myself to You”), the historical (“1913 Massacre”) with the religious (“This Morning I was Born Again”), the childlike (“Howjadoo”) and the hard times (“I Ain’t Got No Home”)—all adding up to one of the most panoptic selections of Guthrie songs on disc.
In part, McCutcheon’s ability to shine light on great Woody material that got lost in the dust clouds is what makes This Land worthwhile. “Old Cap Moore” and “Mail Myself to You” are relatively unknown songs, but the crown jewel of unexplored Guthrie content is a spoken poem called “This Is Our Country Here”, in which McCutcheon marries gospel squeezebox and a classic Woody rant: “When you have crossed her as many times as I have you will see as many ugly things about her as pretty things / I looked into a million of her faces and eyes and I told myself there was a look on that face that was good / If I could see it there, in back of all of the shades and shadows of fear and doubt and ignorance and tangles of debts and worries / And I guess it is these things that make our country look all lopsided to some of us, lopped over onto the good and easy side or over onto the bad and the hard side / Because I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly and it was because I knew the pretty part that I wanted to change the ugly part / Because I hated the dirty part that I knew how to feel the love for the cleaner part / You see this is our country here as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk or no matter what spot of it you stand on / This is our country here.”
That, partner, is the findings chapter of Woody’s dissertation on American life, a summation of the balladeer’s perspectives, a poetic example of a great realist telling us how it is.
McCutcheon’s treatment of Guthrie’s songs is deliberate and smooth. A master of the hammer dulcimer (evident on “Pastures of Plenty”), a proficient guitarist and a hell of a banjo player (see “Howjadoo”), his arrangements are instrumentally busy compared with the simple guitar and voice setup of a typical Guthrie recording.
He gets help from friends, too. “Deportees” is befit with a somber concertina lead and “This Morning I Was Born Again” features proselytizing mandolin and violin leads. McCutcheon’s singing is reminiscent of the late Utah Phillips: voice full, words enunciated, delivery even and paced—ultimately amounting to a clarity that Guthrie’s untuned drawl never allowed and presenting Guthrie’s lyrics in a very comprehendible way.
It are moments of questionable taste that screw up This Land. The smooth horn solos featured throughout the album sound like elevator jazz and the star-studded title track is inflated and trite. Though it features cameos by such greats as Willie Nelson and Maria Maldaur, they are ultimately unjustified—“This Land is Our Land” doesn’t call for a bombastic, all-star performance. It calls for honesty. It’s a rare miss for an artist that’s typically good at finding the heart in a song.
Guthrie once annotated his own copyrights with “Anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a darn. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
McCutcheon, who’s been playing Woody’s songs since he picked up a guitar, owes a great debt to Guthrie and This Land is a fair payment.