July 14, 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody Guthrie. September 27, 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event. However, when you stop and consider how much one man from Okemah, Oklahoma impacted popular culture, specifically popular music, you’ll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31, 2012 looking through his entire work, we’d only begin to scratch the surface of its significance.
Just to begin with, there are the musicians around the world whom he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2, and punk rockers like the late Joe Strummer of the Clash have cited Guthrie as one of their inspirations. Guthrie had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the Depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl, either—he could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers, and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and in a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn’t just write about the poor and oppressed; he wrote about everything. Guthrie wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, “This Land Is Your Land,” a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.
When he died in 1967, after spending nearly the last 13 years of his life hospitalized by the Huntington’s Disease which killed him, Guthrie left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and notebooks. Guthrie’s son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a houseguest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn’t find any scraps of paper to write stuff on, one could wake up in the morning and find the walls covered, as his inspiration wasn’t something that was going to be denied. It’s only recently that his family has begun the labor of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue, a collection of previously unreleased Guthrie songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
To kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Guthrie’s birth, 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie, featuring 12 songs inspired by Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture–from his contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; to those who have picked up Woody’s torch to become voices of protest today (Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne); to a real surprise, Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either covered previously unrecorded songs by Guthrie or, like Browne, were inspired by entries in Guthrie’s journals.
No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Guthrie’s voice. What’s particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off, and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on “There’s A Feeling In The Music.” DiFranco’s “Voice”, and Terkel’s “I Heard A Man Talking” both tackle the subject of lyrics. Terkel’s is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, but DiFranco’s and Seeger’s songs show an introspective side of Guthrie, revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs, Guthrie’s work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
Of course you can’t ignore the social justice aspect of Guthrie’s music, and “Wild Card In The Hole,” performed by Madeleine Pevroux, and “Old Folks,” sung by Nellie McKay, are two fine examples of Guthrie’s approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is “The Debt I Owe,” put to music by Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he’s in financially. However we soon realize those aren’t the only debts eating at him. No, the ones he’s really tortured by are debts he owes for how he’s treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece, as he’s able to capture the bleakness of the man’s soul with the right level of detachment to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. It’s as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you’re liable to hear anywhere by anyone.