The music world is alive with fanfare and platitudes as Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 this year. Thanks in large part to his daughter Nora’s meticulous caretaking of the family estate, the accolades to Woody have been flowing in for years. Billy Bragg and Wilco’s two-volume Mermaid Avenue collections are the most recognizable, but tributes have also come from less buzzed about sources, including Nora-approved sets from Blackfire, Jonatha Brooke, and The Klezmatics. By now, Guthrie’s mythology bears no repeating. He was the father of folk, the precursor to the rock and roll and country music explosion of the ’50s and ’60s, and one of the leading social activists of his time. His dedication to the craft of songwriting and his singular focus towards creating his art paved the way for the uncompromising icons that followed, artists like Seeger, Dylan, Young, McGuinn, Springsteen, and Petty who have all built careers out of a similar ethos. And thanks to Nora’s similarly dogged attention to her late father’s archives, his long hidden lyrics continue to appear, arranged and brought to life with a clear and focused presentation and detail.
New Multitudes is the name given to the latest set of re-imagined Guthrie compositions. At the helm are Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, four names that likewise need little introduction in the music community. These four artists typically sound their best when wrapped in a downbeat shroud. They all know how to make the listener feel the blues, and the success of this album lies in their respective song selections. Guthrie also knew how to feel the blues and, over the course of a few bleak months spent in the dark recesses of Los Angeles and Topanga Canyon, fiercely recorded his thoughts, urges, and laments. It is this unexplored aspect of the Guthrie era that is mined on New Multitudes. Farrar plaintively leads the album off with “Hoping Machine”, gently enunciating Guthrie’s life mantras over a slowly building musical crescendo. Later, his weary voice perfectly captures the lonely regret and bitterness that fills the protagonist’s mind in “Careless Reckless Love”: “My heart is sad with a muddy old mind / My heart is muddy / Got trouble rising high / The one I love / Just won’t be mine.” Yames also captures the Guthrie’s longing spirit, adding his vocal range and dynamics to “My Revolutionary Mind”, a set of lyrics where Guthrie lists the various personal traits required to win him over. A few tracks later, Yames absolutely nails the plaintiveness felt in “Talking Empty Bed Blues”.
While Farrar and Yames mine the depths of despair, Parker and Johnson liven up the heavy subject matter. Parker brings a healthy dose of optimism to “Fly High” and “Old L.A.”, two tracks where the musical accompaniments match the lyrics’ hopeful musings. Johnson, a veteran collaborator and jack-of all-instruments, lets the rock flag fly on “V.D. City”, a nod to the seedy vices and consequences that accompany the City of Angels, and then later conjures the ghosts on the spine-tingling and spooky “Chorine My Sheeba Queen”.
The album’s 12 tracks serve as a testament and record of Guthrie’s brilliantly crafted songwriting. The man is most famously celebrated and revered for his dust bowl balladry but as the lyrics of New Multitudes illustrate, he also had a sinister side that definitely came out as he progressed in years and worsened in health. The critic Greil Marcus has used the term “The Old Weird America” to describe the ancient folk and minstrel songs that comprised Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of Folk Music. Nora Guthrie and the artists involved here could have named this collection The Old Weird L.A. if they were so inclined, as Guthrie was obviously immersed in all of the town’s mid 20th Century allure at the time he authored these lyrics. Fortunately this period of Woody’s life now sees the light of day and Farrar, Parker, Johnson, and Yames have done the Guthrie family proud and provided a perfect centennial gift to music fans worldwide.