City Paper is not for tourists
Woody is dead. Long live Woody. That’s right, folks, the songs of Woody Guthrie live again, thanks to an ingenious collaboration between the Guthrie family, socialist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, and contemporary country/folk rockers Wilco. When Woody departed this mortal coil in 1967, he left behind a trove of song lyricssome finished, some unfinishedwith no music. Bragg and Wilco sifted through the archives and wrote music to accompany a selection of Woody’s words. A daunting, dangerous jobbut Bragg and Wilco more than do justice to Woody as they bring him back to life, as it were, for a whole new audience. Musically, the album stays as close to a folk ethic as one would expect from the protagonists involved. Given that 50 years has elapsed since Woody’s last recorded output, the lush sound is not surprising, though it may offend some purists. The album opens with “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” which scores a sing-along-ability rating of at least 11 on a 10-point scale. The album contains a lot of predictable materialWoody wearing his socialist cap as he proclaims, “Every year we waste enough/To feed the ones we starve/We build our civilization up/And we shoot it down with wars” on “Christ for President,” and the rousing pro-union “I Guess I Planted.” But it also contains some revelations, such as Woody’s unrequited love for Ingrid Bergman. In a barely concealed metaphor, he writes, “This old mountain it’s been waiting/All its life for you to work it/For your hand to touch its hard rock/Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman.” Natalie Merchant’s appearance is somewhat wasted on “Birds and Ships,” a pale and insubstantial song; similarly, “California Stars” plods along without any real sense of purpose. And the more personal songs, such as “At My Window Sad and Lonely” and “Another Man’s Done Gone,” tend to pass the listener by. Minor quibbles for an album that take us so convincingly into the past.