Updated Wed, Mar 14, 2012 3:50 pm
In this centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, several tributes are being planned for the iconic American activist and folk singer. There are at least a half-dozen books slated for publication this year, and Smithsonian Folkways is releasing a box set titled Woody at 100.
One such tribute project, New Multitudes, performed by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames, was released on Feb. 28. Like many previous tributes, the lyrics were culled from the Woody Guthrie Foundation's collection of unpublished material in the care of Guthrie's daughter, Norah Guthrie, and put to music by artists hand-picked by her.
In the past, she has opened the archives to the likes of Jonatha Brooke, Janis Ian, Slaid Cleaves and the Klezmatics. Of those previous efforts, the most notable and critically acclaimed were the two Mermaid Avenue volumes, released by Billy Bragg and Wilco over a decade ago.
The new project, a successor to the Mermaid Avenue sessions, was originally conceived as a solo album by Son Volt's Jay Farrar. Farrar had previously paid tribute to Guthrie on Son Volt's Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Guthrie) and he and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco were the principle songwriters in the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.
Farrar, along with Anders Parker, his partner in another project, Gob Iron, perused over 3000 handwritten scraps of paper before selecting a few songs from Guthrie's early period in Los Angeles. Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket's Jim James) and his bandmate from Monsters of Folk, Will Johnson, were also enlisted as collaborators to fill out the songwriting responsibilities.
Each of the four participants wrote and contributed three songs each for New Multitudes and the finished result is a bit reminiscent of the Monsters of Folk approach: A song swap of sorts, recorded around a single microphone, featuring the strong stamp of the songwriter with the other three contributing in various supportive roles. The album is also similar to Bruce Springsteen's tribute to another folkie-activist, Pete Seeger, in that many of the songs tend to lean toward the non-political side of Guthrie's catalog.
Farrar begins the proceedings and sets the tone for the project with the tremelo guitar-infused song, "Hoping Machine." Although this is a democratic sampler of the songwriters' skills and styles, it's evident that the genesis of this endeavor was a Farrar solo project.
The concept and result is very similar to Farrar's collaboration with Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard on One Fast Move or I'm Gone, based on texts from Jack Kerouac's novel, Big Sur. On that album, the intention was admirable but the tunes were somewhat forgettable. Upon repeated listening to New Multitudes, Anders Parker's three compositions, especially the track "Old L.A.," are the strongest contributions to the set.
New Multitudes is a respectful tribute to a man who changed folk music forever and inspired these four artists, as well as every singer-songwriter from Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco. Fans of Son Volt, My Morning Jacket, Centro-Matic and Varnaline will most likely be satisfied with this outing. As a fan of Mermaid Avenue, I will say that there are no immediate classics like "California Stars" or hummable melodies like "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," "My Flying Saucer" or "Secrets of Sea."
If you're partial to these "words by Guthrie/music by various artists" tribute collections, there is another one titled Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie, featuring Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Madeleine Peyroux and others. Later this month, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions box set will be released, with both CDs, bonus material, and a reissue of the documentary film of the Mermaid studio sessions, Man in the Sand.