Putting his words in their mouths

In a 1997 interview with Goldmine magazine, aspiring cowboy and folk aficionado Ramblin’ Jack Elliot recalled his mentor Woody Guthrie this way: “I picked up a lot of good things from him and one or two bad habits.”

These days, a lot of musicians are picking up good things from Guthrie — namely his songs.

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan was a self-professed “Woody Guthrie Jukebox,” but according to NPR folk critic Scott Alarick, “Rediscovery of [Guthrie] is going on with people who don’t want to be Woody Guthrie jukeboxes.”

In a 2003 episode of NPR’s Here and Now, Alarick went on to praise Guthrie’s “sensual use of language, musicality [and] love of words for their own sound.”

Though the folksinger (known for hopping boxcars and singing about the plight of America’s downtrodden) has been dead nearly 40 years, his influence shows no sign of waning. In fact, performers such as Rob Wasserman (who brings his Spirit of Guthrie Tour to Stella Blue this week) claim that Guthrie’s social message is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

But pinpointing Guthrie’s creed turns that social message into a mixed message.

Ani and Studs: together at last

“Nora [Guthrie] approached me about four years ago at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Robert Johnson,” Wasserman explains from his home in California. “She had some unpublished words and she wanted to see what I could do with them.”

Nora is Woody’s daughter by his second marriage. She’s also the director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, and has been a major force in keeping her father’s music alive. From time to time, Guthrie releases some of Woody’s previously unseen writings to various musicians, who then put the words to their own music (see sidebar).

After hearing him perform with post-punk icon Lou Reed, Nora decided to give Wasserman a chance to lend his own instrumentation to Woody’s rantings.

“When I was a teenager, he was a hero of mine, musically and spiritually,” Wasserman readily admits — this coming from a performer who’s reached a cult status of his own. The bassist enjoys lingering Grateful Dead associations from his alliance with Bob Weir (he’s a 15-year member of Weir’s Ratdog). Wasserman was classically trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and went on to master jazz, pop and rock. He’s collaborated with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello and won a Grammy for his 1990 album Duets (MCA).

But don’t expect his new work — the Woody Guthrie songs — to sound like anything Wasserman’s done before. So far, the musician has recorded Guthrie tunes with top righteous babe Ani DiFranco, everyman ambassador Studs Terkel and hip-hop yogi Michael Franti. With the help of producer Hal Wilner, the so-called “Woody Project” should be complete by the end of the year.

Basically on track

But, CD or no, Wasserman (who claims he’s never done things the normal way, as in release an album, then tour) is taking Woody’s songs on the road. “We’re basically going out and playing as street musicians — like he did — except we have some gigs, which he rarely did,” the bassist notes.

His touring group, the Spirit of Guthrie (completely separate from the Guthrie Project), currently includes guitarists/improvisational lyricists Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon) and Jim Page. (New Orleans-based electric-violin diva Theresa Andersson is also on board for some stops.)

“We take simple chord progressions — folkish — and loop into a simple song,” Wasserman explains. “Then Jim or Vince will go into a song about the current political climate. We make up a bunch of songs like that, and we do a bunch of old Woody Guthrie music.”

Which is not to say the trio is relying on those rediscovered Guthrie writings (“poems, journals, diaries, excerpts from a day in the life of Woody Guthrie,” according to Wasserman, who won’t disclose the exact content of the findings). They perform a few pieces that have been set to music, but the show is more about, well, what it says — the spirit of Guthrie.

“Woody made up most of his songs, as far as I can tell, when he was talking to people,” the bassist claims. “One of his favorite things to do was to stand in front of a group of people and make up words. The words we’re making up are in his basic spirit, and his daughter Nora agrees we’re basically on track.”

But the question is, what is the spirit of Guthrie? Because, more than a half-century later, it’s come to mean many things to many people. Asked why the folk hero’s words are still important, Wasserman retorts, “They just are. There’s still a lot of war. Still the big [corporations] screwing the poor. It’s all still the same issues.”

Here’s the thing — Woody Guthrie was certainly a spokesman for the disenfranchised, but he was also a man of contradictions. If he spoke out against the government, he also received a paycheck from Uncle Sam. If he spoke out against war, he also served in the military. And if he was pro-USA, he was also accused of being (gasp!) a Communist.

Will the real Woody Guthrie please stand up?

“All them salmon just couldn’t be wrong”

“I haven’t seen the papers Rob [Wasserman] has seen,” admits Bill Murlin, resident Woody Guthrie expert at the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Ore. “He might have essays that express a political viewpoint, but I’m not privy to those.”

Murlin continues, “Everything I saw that Guthrie wrote — the Dustbowl Ballads, song cycles — had to do with what was happening to individual citizens. The songs may have been attacking governments, but they were attacking governments based on what they were doing to people.”

In 1941, the BPA, then part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, hired Guthrie for one month to write songs about the dams being built on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. “At the time this job was offered to Guthrie, he was out of work and didn’t have any prospects,” Murlin notes.

It’s this gig that Wasserman refers to when he muses about his hero, “Sometimes we wonder if he knew in hindsight about [the environmental repercussions of] damming the Columbia. I don’t know if he’d want that anymore.”

But Murlin points out that “Guthrie’s focus was on what the jobs would mean for individual people, and what electricity [provided by the dams] would mean for poor farmers.”

“Uncle Sam needs water and power dams/ Uncle Sam needs people, and the people need land./ ‘Course I don’t like dictators none myself,/

But then I think the whole country had ought to be run by e-lec-trici-ty,” Woody sang in “Talkin’ Columbia Blues.”

Earlier, in the same song, he offers up these lines:

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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