“Every year there’s stuff going on, a record comes out or songs come out and she’ll endorse a release. She’s [been doing] this on a long term basis,” solo recording artist Anders Parker says of Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie’s interest in keeping his spirit and contribution to music alive.
This year, on July 14th, is the 100th anniversary of the folk and protest musician’s birth. Musicians Anders Parker, Jay Farrer of the bands Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames and Centromatic’s Will Johnston searched the extensive Wooy Guthrie archives in New York City to piece together a reimagining of these scraps of lyrics and ghosts of songs which comprise New Multitudes.
“Jay got offered this [by Nora] ten or fifteen years ago I guess”, recalls Parker, “and it kind of fell through the cracks at the time. He and I made a record under the name Gob Iron, we did a bunch of folk songs, reinterpreted them and made a record, and when we were doing the press for that record Jay mentioned he was going back to the Archives to look at stuff and hopefully start this [process] again.”
The Archives Parker speaks of are located in Manhattan, in an office building near Columbus Circle. “It was a series of three or four offices, one of which was just the Archive room. It was just chock full of boxes and files and folders. Notebooks and loose papers – typed and written – and journals, even paintings. They’d done a pretty thorough job of cataloging everything. So I went in probably two or three times and they would bring out a box kind of randomly, and you’d just get to go through everything. Put on some little white gloves and peek through. I would keep notes of things that seemed interesting to me and Jay did the same. It was very instinctual; a phrase or one word, a title or a line, and I would take note. By the end I would have a page of 30 or 40 pieces that were interesting to me and then we would go through and photocopy the ones that hadn’t been used by someone else already. For me the actual selection process was so fast because there was so much stuff to go through. You couldn’t spend hours there looking for the song that related to [your] life. It was more what hit a spark.”
“There were many different mediums and forms”, Will Johnson of Centromatic recounts. “Some of them are diary entries and some are more metered. There’s quite a collection of stuff there. Some handwritten, some scraps of napkins, some typewritten. It just varied. Some had coffee cup stains and marks in the margins, and while some were very informal others were quite formulated and thought out. There were a lot of scraps; [fragments of ideas], but a lot of them were in song form…he was very fond of signing his name at the end [of these]. Probably 50% of them or more had locations, like where he was and what he wrote which was really interesting. If anything it taught me to document [my own work] a little better. It’s important to know maybe even what the weather was like that day.”
“At the very beginning I remember feeling a slight bit of intimidation or pressure even, like ‘Man how are you gonna do this right?’…you just go with what the lyrics tell you to do in a way, which with a song, would almost jump out at you. If that [felt] like the closest gulf to leap over then it [was] probably right.”
Parker “never thought of it as trying to be true to his music per se. I constantly put aside the thoughts of who he was and everything and just let whatever came through to me in [the lyrics] be what it was. I don’t think any [of us] really adhered to trying to be musically like Woody. But the lyrics, you could do so many different things that they could support anything we tried to do. It was amazing how natural it felt, and I think that’s just a testament to the power of his writing and how affective it is, how timeless it is. It felt incredibly natural to pick those songs.”
It was the recording process in fact that the collective recall as being more in the folk musician’s spirit”. “[It was pretty much live off the studio floor], everybody was singing live when they were playing. I know the tracks I cut with the band were all cut live and that was the same for Jay, Will and Jim. Woody didn’t, you know, over dub anything” Anders cracks, “you just got a guitar and played your song and moved onto the next thing. Even though our [record] came from all these different time frames and different locations I do feel like the common denominator in all of this was the approach. Just trying it out and seeing how it went. That first take in the studio sometimes is your best and it just feels like that’s the right thing to do. I don’t think anybody laboured over anything, the lyrics are so well written in a lot of cases that it just felt natural.”
The vast majority of the material the four worked on came from Guthrie’s California years; from his experiences on LA’s skid row onto his later years in Topanga Canyon. “Most of [the recording] was done at Mark Spencer’s studio in Brooklyn, NY, Jay recorded some of his initial tracks in St Louis, the mixing was done in various places and we did a few really small sessions back in St Louis at a different studio. But the majority of it was done at Mark’s place, spread out over a couple of different sessions over a couple of different years. But even upon reconvening I don’t think it diminished the excitement or enthusiasm in any way. In fact everyone remained vigilant about seeing this through.” Johnson concurs, “there was no agonising over it, it was more of a hunger to hurry up and get to it, to devour it and see what sang to you. Once I went into denial that I was working on Woody Guthrie lyrics they just became songs that I was recording. It was very ‘ragged on the floor’ type thing. That doesn’t always work, but this time it did”.
“Remembering my personal experiences with the songs that I chose” he continues, “I didn’t really set out to write more acoustic kind of folk. The ‘Chorine’ song came out that way ’cause the more I messed with it the more that I tried to come up with different ways to sing it, it just kept coming back to this acoustic guitar and voice kind of thing. Jay sent me a mailer of 18 or 20 pages and I went to the mail box, picked it up of course eagerly knowing it was coming, ended up looking through the lyrics on the walk back to my apartment at the time. That song on the top of the stack was the one that struck me…I could almost hear it in my head, and within about 20-25 minutes I had a demo committed which wasn’t that different from what we did on the record.”
“It’s interesting to talk about this could spread the word of Woody. I’m always amazed that people wouldn’t know him, but I guess you always take it for granted”. ‘This Land is Your Land’ was a song Anders Parker remembers singing in grade school and pre-school, it’s always been a part of his consciousness. While for Johnson his “knowledge of [Woody] was really limited to a handful of songs as a kid. I’d hear a few things here and there about his name and his legacy, but it intensified toward I guess, maybe the late ’90s when I realised the breadth of his contribution to our culture. That’s when my fanship and my quest to know more about him definitely started to snowball”.
“I guess the reality of it is that as we’re moving on in time we’re finding that the transmission of [Woody’s] importance needs to be carried on a little more widely as the generations start to die out and separate. I guess it’s our job as musicians and music fans to pass the word along.”
Track: Old L.A.
New Multitudes released on Rounder Records in the UK (5 Mar 2012) Buy it here.