California Stars

[l1]I[/l1] spent the evening on the back patio Sunday, looking at the stars (and a few planets.) Like rudy says, the grandeur of the universe sure puts our petty problems in perspective. It’s nice to live at the back side of town, near an estuary and the ocean, where the city lights don’t do as much damage to stargazing.

Mermaid AvenueAnother batch of California stars are addressed by Wilco and Billy Bragg on “Mermaid Avenue“, an album of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. Put to music by Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, and Jay Bennett in various combinations, the albums (volume II was released in 2000) are a combination of the folk songs we’d expect from Woody, and the folk/rock/punk we’d expect from Bragg and Wilco.

Mermaid Avenue“California Stars” has unusually sensitive lyrics compared to much of Guthrie’s catalog; beautifully poetic. The music, in this case by Bennett and Tweedy, is more traditional. Mostly acoustic, it also includes some slide work by bluesman Corey Harris which is reminiscent of Tweedy’s days as a nephew of Uncle Tupelo. Rolling Stone did a nice writeup of the first album when it was released, including some background information and comments from the band.

Let’s hope Nora Guthrie continues to find voices for her father’s unrecorded lyrics. Like a Beatles reunion or finding a lost Gilbert and Sullivan opera, resurrecting Woody’s words is a music lover’s dream come true.

Grapes of Route 66

[l1]I[/l1] love Woody Guthrie. My father wanted to be Woody Guthrie. If he’d been a few years older, he would have been Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie was an honest man, trying to tell the truth in a dishonest world. There are places and times in the past where men like him were hunted and killed for what they did. It tells me something about the advance of civilization, about which I worry just a bit, that Woody Guthrie wasn’t put away by the government or lynched.

His songs are wry, dry, and witty. His songs were simple statements of fact about simple ugly facts no one else was talking about. I honestly don’t know how much impact his music had on the course of events, or what its value will be perceived as somewhere down the road, but every once in a while it makes me stop and think, and that’s enough.

As much as I enjoy listening to Woody himself (my father sounded so much like him, it’s like listening to the recordings of him that don’t exist) there’s one cover of a Woody Guthrie tune that transcends musical boundaries: Odetta, singing “Ramblin’ Round” on the 1972 “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” album. Backed by Arlo Guthrie and a group of remarkable musicians not yet known as The Band, Odetta swings this simple folk tune into a rollicking blues rock paean to the man himself. It’s one of those tracks that I just have to listen to more than once (on the tape I play in my car, I have Arlo singing “Oklahoma Hills”, a childhood favorite, and Odetta’s cover alternating, repeated three times so I don’t have to rewind it.)

Just discovered that Joel Rafael will be performing at this year’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Ah, to be in Oklahoma in June.