Story by Michael Eck
Woody Guthrie wrote, by some estimates, 3,000 songs. Early on he found a few collaborators, but in recent years his daughter Nora Guthrie has been placing select lyrics with contemporary writers. Here’s a chronological list of my current faves.
“Oklahoma Hills” – Jack Guthrie
You could say that Woody’s cousin Jack “stole” this song, but so what? Woody stole just about every melody he ever sang. The bottom line is that Jack “fixed it up” in much the way A.P. Carter did with traditional mountain songs, and turned it into a true Western Swing hit in the process.
“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Martin Hoffman
When Woody wrote this lament in 1948, the Huntington’s Disease that would take his life was already robbing him of his abilities to make music. Hoffman, a singing schoolteacher, set the lyric beautifully, with the melody matching the ache of the words. It became a standard even while Guthrie was still alive. There’s a great video of Dylan (doing his best Troy Pohl) and Baez singing this on the Rolling Thunder Tour. Barring that, believe it or not, Dolly Parton’s version is as good a place as any to start – at least she doesn’t mangle “adios” as badly as Springsteen does.
“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” – Billy Bragg
Part of the “Mermaid Avenue” project with Wilco. Bragg embodies Guthrie’s spirit in so many ways, and not just as a protest singer. The bloke’s own nods and winks in songs like “Sexuality” made him the perfect partner for Woody’s naughty little number about girls in trees.
“California Stars” – Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett
The Wilco half of “Mermaid Avenue.” The salt and sweet of Tweedy and Bennett clashed just right on this moonlit ditty. Gram Parson is still pissed that he died before he had a chance to record this one.
“This Morning I Am Born Again” – Slaid Cleaves
This, flat out, is one of my favorite Guthrie lyrics. It fuses his early spiritual searchings with his hope for the common man to create a new philosophy that refutes religion and offers humanity, ecology and love, simply love, in its stead. Cleaves’ minor key blues stands at odds with the message in a way Guthrie would have no doubt enjoyed.
“I Hear You Sing Again” – Janis Ian
If you know Guthrie’s story, and how he watched his mother fade away from Huntington’s years before he did himself, this one will break your heart a hundred ways.
“Gonna Get Through This World” – The Klezmatics
The Klezmatics are just a great, great band. Do yourself a favor and check them out. This track, co-written by fiddler Lisa Gutkin features Susan McKeown on lead vocals, and it’s a match made in whatever heaven you choose.
“New Star” – Jonatha Brooke
Brooke was blissfully unaware of Guthrie’s breadth and depth when she tackled an album’s worth of his lyrics on “The Works.” As a result she approached him like a butcher approaches a chicken. The results were unexpected and beautiful, revealing a brace of brave, erotic and tender love songs. “New Star” just shimmers. It’s remarkable. I could listen to it a thousand times, and I have.
“Old Folks” – Nellie McKay
Nellie McKay is a whack job, which makes her uniquely suited to tackle a rambling 1944 essay and wrestle it into a song. Her ice queen piano and lilting voice leans heavily on the Rickie Lee Jones influence here, but is that ever a bad thing?
“On The High Lonesome” – Chris Whitley
Part performance poetry, part beatnik jazz and all fierce Beefheart blues. Zeus (I’m sorry, I mean Chris Whitley) and producer/bassist Rob Wasserman pulled this one out of cloud or grew it from some funky seeds. Goofer dust was involved, I’m sure. Whatever the source, it’s organic, mean and full of life. One hopes Whitley and Woody are now having the chance to hang out for real with Jesus, John Henry and Jack Daniels.
Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-music historian Michael Eck will celebrate the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth on Saturday (July 14) with the debut performance of his “Bound for Glory: 100 Years of Woody Guthrie” at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Showtime is 8pm; tix are $15 in advance; $17 at the door.
BUT WAIT… We’re giving away a pair of FREE TIX to the show. Just go here to enter…