Thursday, May 17, 2012

John McCutcheon – This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America

This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America
Appalseed Productions

This coming July 14 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, one of the most important and influential folksingers and songwriters of the 20th century. A number of CD projects celebrating Woody’s centennial have already been released and there are more to come – including Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, a 3-CD box set from Smithsonian Folkways which will include 21 previously unreleased performances, among them six previously unheard songs.

While both of the Woody centennial CD projects I’ve already reviewed – Note of Hope and New Multitudes – have concentrated on settings of unknown or unheard songs from the Woody Guthrie Archives, most of John McCutcheon’s collection, This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, is devoted to songs from the canon of classic Woody Guthrie songs. John also includes two songs from the Archives that he set to music; another that was set to music by Slaid Cleaves; and a recitation taken from Woody’s writing.

This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America is an apt title for this collection. Woody’s writing is deeply patriotic. But Woody’s is not a blind – ‘My country right or wrong’ or ‘America: Love it or leave it’ – kind of patriotism. No, his kind of patriotism, as seen in many of the songs in this collection including “Pastures of Plenty,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Deportees,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” and, perhaps most significantly, in “This Land is Your Land,” is a patriotism centered on compassion and justice, on righting the wrongs that make America less than it could be, as well as love of country.

While these songs date from 60 and more years ago, it’s amazing how relevant most of them still are to contemporary society. Woody was writing back then about how migrant workers are anonymously imported and deported; about the way the economic system creates an underclass; about how the rich exploit the poor for profit with no regard for human dignity – issues that are still with us today. While the event documented in “Deportees” took place in 1948, it could just as easily have been 2012.

But, as John notes in his liner essay, Woody Guthrie’s America was/is also a place with “children to put to sleep, lovers to serenade, outrageous boasts to shout, heroes to celebrate,” so the collection includes songs for those things too.

I’ll call special attention to the two songs from the Woody Guthrie Archives set to music by John. “Harness Up the Day” is a beautiful, poetic love song – a precursor by 20-something years to Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time; and “Old Cap Moore,” a delightful tribute to a neighborhood hero.

John uses a wide range of musical settings on this album from his solo vocal and banjo version of “Pretty Boy Floyd,” to the rootsy band setting of “Biggest Thing That Man has Ever Done,” to the chamber-folk arrangement of “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

The most elaborate arrangement is certainly the stirring rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” in which John trades verses with Maria Muldaur, Tom Paxton and Willie Nelson. The spoken recitation with concertina accompaniment to “This is Our Country Here” is a perfect lead-in to “This Land.”

Among the other musicians featured on various tracks are Tim OBrienTommy Emmanuel, Bryn Davies and Stuart Duncan.

From beginning to end – the album ends with Goebel Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby,” often cited as Woody’s favorite song – This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America is a terrific collection.

My only quibble is that there’s no acknowledgement that some of the songs have been taken from previously released albums. The all-star version of “This Land is Your Land” is from a various artists collection for children called This Land is Your Land (Songs of Unity). “Pastures of Plenty” is from a duo album John did with Tom Chapin, and the versions of “Mail Myself to You,” “Harness Up the Day,” “Howjadoo” and “Old Cap Moore” are from John McCutcheon albums dating as far back as 1988. I certainly don’t have a problem with the inclusion of the older recordings – I just think it should be made clear that the album includes both new recordings and previously released material.

Quibble aside, I have no hesitation in offering this album my highest recommendation.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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