2012 marks the centennial celebration commemorating the birth of Woody Guthrie, without question one of the most significant and imperative voices in recorded music.
The songs he wrote were fearless vessels for counter-cultural thought and government criticism in a time when jingoistic sentimentalism was at a fever pitch after World War II here in the States. The wit, honesty and candor by which this one-time Merchant Marine questioned authority, expounded upon events the evening news wasn’t covering and criticized the socioeconomic structure of post-war America by chronicling the eroding divide between the rich and the poor that was merely a sliver of the canyon-esque chasm it is today at the time has since become part of the fabric of our national conversation. If you didn’t know the period when Guthrie was actively writing songs, you’d think that the lyrics were speaking upon the events of recent months in the wake of the civil and bureaucratic unrest between the 1 percent and the 99 percent of the current parameters of class dictating the direction of our country.
But the way by which Woody’s words resonate more effectively with the struggle of the middle and working classes in the modern age than they did during the FDR, Truman and Eisenhower days when he helped give birth to both the Civil Rights Movement and the Free Speech Movement stateside, speaks volumes to the cross-generation transcendence of his message. On a personal level, in listening to his most well-known song now, “This Land Is Your Land”, the song’s context transcends far beyond its status as something we were forced to sing in unison during elementary school music class and comes across now more so as the inalienable declaration of freedom and liberty that speaks to me as a national anthem more resoundingly than “America The Beautiful” ever will. I refer to a quote from longtime Woody acolyte Bob Dylan, who said it best when he quipped of Guthrie’s music: "The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” True that, Mr. Zimmerman.
Yet what is most fascinating about the songbook of Woody Guthrie left behind when he passed away in 1967 from a long, painful and largely untreated bout with Huntington’s Disease after living out his final years bouncing around various psychiatric hospitals across the Tri-State area is not so much the tunes he put to acetate, but rather the ones that never made it past the paper-and-pencil stage of his creative process. 12 years ago, Billy Bragg and Wilco hit critical and quasi-commercial pay dirt bringing to life selections from Woody’s cache of lyrics in need of melodies with their Mermaid Avenue series, which is being revisited this spring with a commemorative box set that will include a third volume of previously unreleased material from the original sessions. Preceding this event, however, comes New Multitudes, a similarly minded project conspired by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s old Uncle Tupelo compadre Jay Farrar along with Farrar’s Gob Iron partner Anders Parker, Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson and My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, working here under his Yim Yames pseudonym.
At the behest of Woody’s daughter, Nora, the four men were given unlimited access to the treasure trove of legal pads, date books, ledgers, napkins, mess hall menus and anything else Guthrie was able to get his hands on to write out his thoughts preserved in his family archives. The selections chosen by the quartet span the entirety of Guthrie’s active duty as a songwriter, one song dating as far back as 1938 (that being “Angel’s Blues”, written by Guthrie in Sacramento and refurbished by Parker to sound like an outtake from his old group Varnaline’s eponymous 1997 masterpiece), while others stem from a December 1954 burst of creative energy while sequestered as an inpatient at Brooklyn State Hospital (namely Johnson’s stirring spin on the defiant “No Fear”). Yet the most interesting stuff on Multitudes comes from Woody’s time in California’s Topanga Canyon region, where he laid low at a refuge for actors and musicians blacklisted by Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Displaced from his home, divorced from his second wife Marjorie and coping with the suffering inflicted upon him from his Huntington’s, the material he wrote during this time was undoubtedly much darker and more forlorn than his Coney Island days. And this mood is indeed captured quite effectively across tracks like Yames’ ghostly version of “Talking Empty Bed Blues”, written in October of 1952 while Guthrie was visiting North Hollywood and the album’s title track, written in that same time and interpreted by Farrar with the subtle harmonic beauty of vintage CSNY.
There are also several tracks from Parker and Farrar on the equally indispensable second disc included in the limited edition deluxe version of this set that pull from Woody’s Topanga time, most strikingly “San Antone Meat House”, where Farrar delivers lines like “There’s only two things in this sad world that I need/My longneck bottle and my spade” with the same sense of desolation Guthrie must have felt typing those very words on yellow legal paper, and Parker’s Tom Petty-esque take on “Dope Fiend Robber”, penned around Christmastime in 1953 and peppered with sentiments foreshadowing Woody’s roundabout influence on the punk movement that would explode a decade after his death.
Perhaps even more so than Mermaid Avenue, New Multitudes is a definitive tribute from four of Woody Guthrie’s most faithful latter day apostles to the beauty, poignancy and political poetry of the many sides of this genuine folk hero on the 100th year of his exuberant existence as an essential entity of the true American spirit.