Woody Guthrie at the Century Mark

Article Published: Mar. 1, 2012 | Modified: Mar. 1, 2012
Woody Guthrie at the Century Mark

In the world of music, 2012 marks the centennial of the birth of quite a number of important musicians.

Jazz musicians Les Brown and Gil Evans celebrate their 100th birthdays this year, had they lived that long, as will avant-garde composers John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow, country music sweethearts Minnie Pearl and Dale Evans, and smooth crooner Perry Como.

None of these musical artists, however, can hold a mic stand to Woody Guthrie when it comes to influencing musicians who came afterward. Without Guthrie, Bob Dylan wouldn’t be who is, nor would Bruce Springsteen.

No, the entire folk music movement of the 1960s, with its emphasis on protest and social justice, is unthinkable without Woody Guthrie.

And, of course, the great music of Arlo Guthrie simply wouldn’t exist without his dad around to procreate.

Born July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie is best known for songs, such as “This Land is Your Land,” “1913 Massacre,” “Oklahoma Hills” and “Pretty Boy Floyd,” among many others.

In 1998, at the bequest of Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, English musician Billie Bragg and American folk rock band Wilco scoured the treasure trove of the Woody Guthrie Foundation in New York. There they found hundreds of lyric sheets written by Guthrie, the vast majority of which had never been set to music.

That project between Bragg and Wilco resulted in two albums of new material utilizing Guthrie’s original lyrics: “Mermaid Avenue” (1998) and “Mermaid Avenue II” (2000), named for the street on Coney Island where Guthrie and his family lived for a while in the 1940s and ’50s. Both albums were a critical success, landing on many “best of the year” lists and reigniting an interest in Guthrie’s music.

A similar project was undertaken by singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, resulting in the album “The Works” in 2008.

This year, in honor of the centennial of the birth of Guthrie, four of the hottest musicians in the Americana and alternative music scenes today have collaborated a new, Nora Guthrie-sanctioned project utilizing previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics.

The new album, called “New Multitudes,” features Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel), Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupelo), Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk) and Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron).

“New Multitudes” was released on Rounder Records this week.

According to Rounder Records spokesman Brad Paul, “Under the invitation of Nora Guthrie … to tour the Guthrie archives, each of the four songwriters were offered the chance to plumb and mine the plethora of notebooks, scratchpads, napkins, etc., for anything that might inspire them to lend their voices and give the words new life.”

The resulting album is being released in two formats. The first is a 12-song release with each songwriter contributing three compositions. The second is a 23-track deluxe, limited-edition package, featuring original Guthrie lyric sheets and 11 additional compositions written by Farrar and Parker.

“New Multitudes” differs sonically and in attitude from the “Mermaid Avenue” albums in that many of the new recordings are drenched in reverb, with electric guitars, basses and keyboards taking center stage.

Each songwriter takes the lead vocals on his composition, with the other members of the quartet lending their voices to harmony and backing vocals.

Although there is nothing to indicate when the lyrics were written, many of the Guthrie compositions appear to be from later in life, when the themes of mortality and love replaced the themes of social justice and the working man.

Fans of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and My Morning Jacket will love “New Multitudes,” as Farrar and Yames (Jim James, under a pseudonym) bring their trademark band sounds with them to the Guthrie Project.

While the “Mermaid Avenue” projects allowed us to admire and pay tribute to the words of Woody Guthrie, “New Multitudes” forces us to listen to him in an entirely different light. And that’s a good thing.

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