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.