All Together Now
Folk tribute albums abound
By Michael McCall
JULY 20, 1998: A good song gets around, Woody Guthrie once said. Of course, Guthrie never attended a Music Row pitch meeting. If he were trying to get his songs recorded today, he'd likely be told that "This Land Is Your Land" is too political, that "Do-Re-Mi" is too radical, and "Deportee" too depressing.
Fortunately, artists still occasionally manage to sneak something meaningful past the industry barricades. Witness the recent release of four admirable albums that bear the inspiration of America's most revered folksingers--Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and others--all of whom put community and communication before commercialism and fame.
Fittingly, the most radical of the new collections credits Guthrie as songwriter. Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue lifts 15 songs from Guthrie's post-World War II scrapbooks and puts them to lively new rock arrangements. As entertaining as it is surprising, the astounding work puts new flesh on Guthrie's well-weathered bones and lends a playful jaunt to his step.
The genesis of the album comes from Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, who found a stockpile of unrecorded songs and semi-finished lyrics among her father's archives. Always a prolific writer, Guthrie is thought to have created almost all of his lasting work prior to the 1950s. Mermaid Avenue refutes that theory. The songs are rife with brilliant wordplay, biting humor, and compassionate social and political commentary.
After finding the songs, Nora Guthrie contacted Billy Bragg, an English folk-rock busker with a decidedly political bent. Some critics have suggested that entrusting these songs to Bragg was an odd decision--both artistically and commercially. Why didn't she go to Bob Dylan or to Bruce Springsteen? Both are well-known Guthrie acolytes.
The answer may lie in a 1996 tribute to Woody Guthrie staged in Cleveland by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Nora Guthrie helped organize the benefit, which included Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, and Joe Ely, among others. Bragg also performed, and his portion of the program included two Guthrie poems that he put to music. Having already heard what Bragg could do with her father's words surely prompted Nora Guthrie's decision.
Bragg then made a brilliant choice of his own by bringing in the members of Wilco as his collaborators. Vocalist Natalie Merchant also makes a couple of appearances, but it's the clanging, ragged-but-right rock 'n' roll of Wilco that gives these songs such rowdy spirit. The music is often loose and celebratory, with everyone singing in unison. At times, the arrangements and musical feel recall Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the rawboned yet smart pop of Jonathan Richman, NRBQ, and Nick Lowe.
Guthrie's lyrics are just as eye-opening. At times bawdily lustful and openly romantic, they suggest that he was changing along with his times. He also was listening to the music: Bragg says that in the margins of the notepad containing the words to "Hoodoo Voodoo," Guthrie had scribbled that the song should be a "supersonic boogie." In other words, had Guthrie not contracted the degenerative disease of Huntington's chorea in 1952, he might well have superseded Dylan as the folkie who revolutionized rock.
Mermaid Avenue is populated with desirous urges. "Walt Whitman's Niece," which opens the album, finds Guthrie and a seaman friend following two young women they just met into a bedroom. One of the women picks a book of poems from a bookshelf, and as she reads, Guthrie lays his head in her lap--then a clamorous group chant elucidates, "but I can't tell which head!"
The politics are certainly still there too: "I Guess I Planted" is a blatant pro-union song, while "The Unwelcome Guest" chastises the robber-baron mentality of the rich. And "Christ for President" is another in a long line of Guthrie's witty social commentaries. Just as prominent, however, are several beautiful love songs, including "Hesitating Beauty," "One on One," and the breathtaking "California Stars," in which a hardworking man yearns for his woman's soft touch.
As remarkable as Bragg and Wilco sound here, the wild spirit of these songs belongs to Guthrie. It's impossible to listen and not wonder how he would have evolved with the advent of rock, R&B, and electric blues. As good as Jeff Tweedy sounds shouting "Kiss-a me now!" in "Hoodoo Voodoo," how wonderful would it have been to have heard Guthrie bark the same come-on?
Billy Bragg and Wilco aren't the only modern musicians updating folk music for the '90s. Nanci Griffith explores similar territory with the second installment of her Other Voices series. If anything, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) is even more ambitious than its deservedly acclaimed predecessor, 1993's Other Voices, Other Rooms. Once again, she performs some of her favorite songs; but this time around, some of the tunes draw on Guthrie, Seeger, and Stephen Foster, while others offer unexpected and fresh takes on Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, and Pat McLaughlin. Over the course of 19 songs, Griffith manages to incorporate an astounding number of guest artists, often taking a backseat and letting her friends take the lead. Considering the multitude of participants, the results are extraordinarily cohesive. In all, it's a bountiful testament to Griffith's own talent and commitment to music.
Two other recent tribute albums take a more conventional approach, but they're nonetheless packed with commendable performances. Where Have All the Flowers Gone?--The Songs of Pete Seeger and What's That I Hear?--The Songs of Phil Ochs are both inconsistent, but often enough, the participants match the inspiration of the songwriting.
Seeger, of course, is the preeminent elder of the modern American folk scene; his outspoken, topical songs symbolize urban acoustic music at its most socially aware and pedantic. Billed as the first in a series of Seeger tributes, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? combines rock stars (Bruce Springsteen, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco) with veteran folkies (Dick Gaughan, Tom Paxton, Si Kahn). While the songs are purposely constructed as simple sing-alongs, the results reveal the amazing array of political issues Seeger has tackled over the decades.
Ochs, on the other hand, was the dark angel of the folk world. As troubled as he was heroic, he also was the one figure from all these tribute albums who attempted to move his music into the rock 'n' roll era. Though his themes always remained pointedly political, in the '60s, his music drew on psychedelic rock and ornate pop, with dense, carefully pieced-together arrangements. The tribute album, however, largely features contributions from the modern folk community, including some of Ochs' contemporaries (Peter Yarrow, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton), as well as younger singers who were influenced by his work (Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, John Gorka). The results reaffirm not only Ochs' gutsiness, but also his cleverness and his great sense of humanity.
Ultimately, all four albums take somewhat different approaches to folk material, but they all share a sense of cooperation. Each collection is a collaborative effort built upon the voices of many instead of the selective labors of a few. Moreover, all four albums feature choruses of people chiming in harmony--indeed, many of the songs all but demand group singing.
These days, modern music tends to divide people. Radio formats in particular separate listeners into demographic categories delineated by taste and cultural background. Maybe that's what's so uplifting about these four records. Each one brings people together by tapping into the timeless music of Guthrie, Seeger, Ochs, and their cohorts.
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