Made For You And Me
Woody Guthrie's daughter brings new life to her father's words.
A young folk singer who had recently changed his name to Bob Dylan often visited Woody Guthrie in the hospital and played him his old songs. “On one of my visits, Woody had told me about some boxes of songs and poems that he had written that had never been seen or set to melodies — that they were stored in the basement of his house in Coney Island and that I was welcome to them,” Dylan writes in Chronicles, Volume One. But when he showed up at the house on Mermaid Avenue, Woody’s young son Arlo said he didn’t know anything about the lyrics, and Dylan left the manuscripts behind forever.
The lyrics might have been lost to history if Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie hadn’t eventually stumbled across them after her father’s death. “I stopped in my tracks and I thought, Am I having a dream?” she recalls. “I’m looking at one lyric after the next. They’re not scraps. They’re completely finished lyrics.” She took the songs to Woody’s friends, including Pete Seeger and Jack Elliott, but no one had ever heard or seen these words before. “And it’s just spooky. How could there be so many Woody Guthrie lyrics that no living person knows about?”
Nora then developed a plan that was seen by some fans, folklorists, and musicians as completely sacrilegious: She asked a British punk rocker to put music to Woody’s lost words.
“She first asked a few people. The usual suspects: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, people like that. I think they all felt like they were perhaps too close to Woody,” says musician and activist Billy Bragg. “She needed someone who saw Woody from a more distant perspective. Someone who saw Woody against a backdrop of American culture. I think it helped that I didn’t know the whole story. I didn’t know the words to ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ ”
• This week marks the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie. Read the July 2012 feature story on his life and legacy.
• Click here or call 914.241.3844 to purchase any of the albums based on his lost lyrics.
• Read about an unpublished Guthrie novel, scheduled to hit shelves next year.
Bragg knew that he drew comparisons to Woody the protestor, so he enlisted the help of Wilco, an American band that could capture the folk singer’s artistic side. “It was important to get more than one perspective so that we could really do what Nora wanted us to do, which was make him into a three-dimensional person again instead of the two-dimensional Dust Bowl figure he’d become. And that meant we needed to sing his songs about wanting to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of a volcano, getting drunk with sailors, and trying to schtup Walt Whitman’s niece.”
The 1998 album Mermaid Avenue went on to receive mass critical acclaim, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It also generated enough material and support for two more volumes. Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions was released in April. After the success of the first album, Nora recruited other artists — including Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco, and Jackson Browne — to bring life to the trove of lyrics Woody saved over his lifetime. “I just thought, Who else can we bring in that hasn’t done a Woody song?” Nora says. “We’ve done punk, we’ve done rap, we’ve done blues, we’ve done spoken word, we’ve done symphonies. And you know what? They’re all sincere. These are not adaptations. These are initial births. The ripples just keep widening and widening and these songs keep being born in a lot of different genres. It’s a very mystical experience.”
Most recently, Nora invited Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, and Will Johnson to come to the archives and play with her and her father. The resulting album, New Multitudes, was released in February.
“Walking up to the steps of the archives, there’s certainly a degree of intimidation,” Farrar says. “But as soon as you’re there, that turns into inspiration. When I found the song ‘New Multitudes,’ it seemed like [Woody] was calling out to people like us to pull others in to share in his ethos and, in a weird way, carry on his vision.”
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of Cowboys & Indians. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.