Hey, Hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song …
(Song for Woody Bob Dylan, 1961)
Note of Hope: Woody Guthrie & Rob Wasserman.
A Collaboration in Words & Music, (429 Records 2011)
There must be something in the collective. This was released in the same month as The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams and is a similar exercise. In this case, Woody Guthrie’s words are set to music by a series of collaborators. This differs from the Hank Williams project in that it is overseen by Rob Wasserman, whose double bass playing runs right through the album. Prominently.
There’s some history for Woody Guthrie exhumations. Bob Dylan claimed in his Chronicles that Guthrie offered him unfinished songs, but the family declined permission. Billy Bragg collaborated with the Guthrie Estate and Wilco in 1998 to produce Mermaid Avenue. That album had two advantages. The text was intended as lyrics in the first place (in spite of radical contemporary treatments by Bragg and Wilco), and second Bragg certainly has the “feel” of Guthrie in his personality and politics. Jonatha Brooks had another trawl through Guthrie’s writings for The Works in 2008, treated with backing from Joe Sample, Christian McBride and Steve Gadd. So this new investigation of Guthrie material from Rob Wasserman is third in line when it comes to choosing stuff.
This is how I like to hear Woody Guthrie … an EP I bought in 1963
Woody Guthrie had powerful opinions on songwriting. He wanted clear tunes and simple chord progressions so that the average person could sing along. This Land Is Your Land is a triumph in creating a great “new national anthem”. though like the British National Anthem, it has verses that rarely get sung. Much of this album is consciously arty. Or arty-farty, as my father would have said. I think Woody would have disapproved strongly of this as an exercise in songwriting. On the other hand, much of the writing wasn’t intended to be a lyric, so maybe he’d be pleased with these more pretentious artistic renditions.
It starts with The Note of Hope by Van Dyke Parks and Rob Wasserman. There are no words to it, so I can’t see what Woody did except inspire it with three lines he wrote in 1946. It’s melodic orchestral with banjo. Why banjo? Woody Guthrie wrote THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on a guitar, not a banjo. Seeger was the banjo player.
Madeleine Peyroux puts a sophisticated cocktail jazzy melody on Wild Card in The Hole. My elderly neighbours like Madeleine Peyroux. Definitely not for me. At this point you’re thinking ‘What has any of this stuff to do with Woody Guthrie?’
Tom Morello does Ease My Revolutionary Mind as something that Woody Guthrie would recognize as a song, with a tune that sounds like a Leonard Cohen tune taken faster. The vaguely Cossack shouts fit. The words sound Cohenesque too, as does the delivery. Very good.
“Lou … there’s someone on the phone. It’s yet another of those various artists tribute sort of things.”
“OK, Laurie. Who is it this time?”
“Woody Guthrie. You can do it like you did the Buddy Holly … just speak in a Lou Reed way for a bit.”
‘What then break into a thrashy bit?”
“No, best give that a rest.”
“What’s the song?”
“The Debt I Owe. You’ve got to write the music.’
“OK. I’ve got twenty minutes free this afternoon.”
Union Love Juice is a jazzy rap on a text from 1947 that’s sort of Allen Ginsberg. Very early for that and not typical Guthrie, so interesting. Probably the best way they could have done it.
Peace Pin Boogie sounds beatnik. A bluesy beat piece by Kurt Elling. Feels like the melody was made up as they went along.
Ani di Franco does Voice with avant-garde spikey bits of backing and noise. This is a long, long way from ‘popular music for the working stiff.’
I Heard A Man Talking features Studs Terkel narrating over yet more jazzy bass and percussion. Terkel brings out Guthrie’s 1943 words, as you would expect. I think I’d prefer it with Studs Terkel talking and no backing. It’s long. Well, it’s only 5m 48s. It feels longer.
After five tracks without much sign of melody, Nellie McKay actually writes a proper melody for Old Folks, a particularly effective text too. It’s a change to get piano dominating, and a lovely guitar piece from Jeff Berliner in the middle. She does end up doing a long narration in the centre of the song, but that illustrates yet again that Woody never wrote these passages to be sung.
On the High Lonesome is by Chris Whitley. I’m really beginning to tire of Wasserman’s dominating bass sound now. Whitley has had to resort to lots of talking and I’m tired of that two minutes in too.
My dislike of Pete Seeger is irrational. I admire everything I read about the man. His courage. His mentoring of other musicians. Much of his songwriting. It’s just I hate his voice, and I’ve never forgiven Little Boxes. He didn’t write it, Malvina Reynolds is guilty there. I saw him sing it on TV on Sunday Night At The London Paladium in 1963. I thought immediately that I’d never heard such a holier-than-thou piece of intellectual superiority, which pissed on the average person’s humble aspirations. I still think it’s a nasty, snotty, disparaging song. Since then I’ve pretty much disliked his Scoutmaster air. So … the big surprise is that Pete Seeger walks away with the closest rendition of Woody Guthrie’s intent on the album with There’s A Feeling in Music, accompanied by Tony Trishka on banjo and Rob Wasserman on bass. OK, like most everyone else he’s still basically talking, but he knows Guthrie phrasing and rhythm and his voice sounds just right. Woody would have liked this one by his old pal and travelling companion, and Seeger’s one of two here who could add the extra verses of This Land is Your Land at the drop of a hat. Ani di Franco could too, I’m sure.
Jackson Browne’s You Know The Night takes a quarter of an hour. That’s an old LP side. That’s six or seven pop songs. It got a sticker praising it on the shrink wrap. This has a good tune, not a Guthrie-esque tune, but a decent Jackson Browne tune and the female backing vocals enrich it and make it feel properly arranged rather than improvised. It’s easily the best song on here, and the best singing performance too. It actually has a chorus. Woody understood choruses.It felt a lot shorter than some of the five minute pieces.
It’s an album to admire in snatches. It revisits some good writing. I’d love to see these people do it in concert. But as an album, it’s one to admire rather than like, and I suspect it’ll accumulate a fair bit of dust between plays. The only track that slipped onto my iPod was Jackson Browne.