Note of Hope, A Celebration of Woody Guthrie (429 Records)
By Brian Arsenault
So what do you do when reviewing the words of an icon set to music and recorded by other icons, legends and even Studs Terkel? Well, first of all you wonder why a major recording of Woody’s words — and Woody was all about words even more than music — begins with an instrumental piece and a rather boring one at that.
The piece that should have begun the CD is “There’s a Feeling in the Music” if for no other reason that it’s principally by Pete Seeger, Woody’s contemporary and pal. But there’s an even bigger reason.
It’s probably the most poetic piece of music on the album, a reflection on “feeling” by an artist who hadn’t been corrupted by the notion that feeling is suspect in art. And it’s an ode to music in a way that is self defining by Woody’s words and sung with just the right feeling by Seeger, even if I do hate his banjo playing and all banjo playing.
There’s a lot more on this album to like.
Madeleine Peyroux is of course terrific with a what everybody wants anthem “Wild Card in the Hole.” Her smooth, smooth voice with Rob Wasserman’s bass perfect underneath. And thematically there’s that wonderful dichotomy of despair and hopefulness that typifies Woody Guthrie’s work.
Lou Reed’s “The Debt I Owe” knows that most of us are in hock to life. This is a short story set to music about owing much more than you can ever pay back while wishing the debt was only about money.
“Voice,” wonderfully sung/spoken by Ani DiFranco, is about alienation from popular culture wherein Woody’s words are about not being able to hear authentic voices in the movies or on the radio. Imagine his horror today. Woody is able to say “This is my language” only after talking to a waitress in a deli and listening to a customer. At a higher level, this song poem is about an artist striving for what is true. More good Wasserman.
Studs is cast perfectly as the voice of a petty theft who just isn’t enjoying stealing as much as he used to, hoping that he will again “when this damn war is over.” World War II is the setting here but pick a war, any war. And for accusations you just can’t top “your a damn fool for being with a damn fool.”
“Peace Pin Boogie” is a hilarious send up of political correctness in all its silly forms. “Boogie for Peace” may be an even more relevant line in terms of the ‘60s and certainly today than it was in Woody’s 1940s and ‘50s America.
Even St. Peter won’t let you in Heaven without your “peace pin on.” Good stuff. And the converse is true too. Remember when the Prez said you didn’t need an American Flag pin to be patriotic and shortly thereafter started wearing one.
The late Chris Whitley’s “On the High Lonesome” explores Woody’s notion of the nasty edges couples can take each other to when they “toss shit back and forth.” Gritty and insightful and Whitley delivers the goods like he’s lived them.
The CD closes with that comforting voice of Jackson Brown rising to sing “You Know the Night” about when Woody first met his second wife. The first marriage evidently didn’t inspire him to such levels of poetry. And poetry there is, with the yearning for someone who “hopes like I hope, sees the same kind of dreams I see.”
But 15 minutes? Really? Hey, Jackson, even with all the beautiful words here it just can’t help but get a little boring. You know, kind of like that song you did about the roadies closing up after the show. Didn’t that ever hit you?
They’re doing a four minute edit of “You Know the Night” for the radio and that’s probably a good idea.
The publicity release says Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, conceived the project based on writings from Woody during his New York Period from 1942-1954 and asked Wasserman to lead the task. She chose well. His ear and eye for the right artists for the pieces that match their skills was unerring. The accompanying musicians are fine throughout.
Our sense of Woody Guthrie is enriched and renewed. Good enough.
To read more reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.