Listen: New Multitudes
Jay Farrar, Jim James, et al. (Rounder Records, 2012)
When the American folk icon Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind reams of song lyrics but no music for them. During the past two decades his daughter, Nora Guthrie, has invited contemporary artists to put music to those orphaned lyrics and record the results. The release of New Multitudes is part of that effort, which reaches a crescendo this year, the centennial of Guthrie’s birth.
Guthrie’s legacy has plenty of room for varied interpretations because he was a man of many paradoxes: A country music singer from the Oklahoma hills and the troubadour of the radical labor movement, a genuine rail-riding hobo and a New York bohemian, a columnist for the Communist Daily Worker and an unorthodox Christian mystic deemed “too religious” for Communist Party membership.
New Multitudes hits a mark somewhere between the Oklahoman and the bohemian, with bluesy guitar and harmonica riffs standing alongside spooky synthesizers and sparse drum loops. There’s not much of Guthrie’s socialism in these lyrics, but we get plenty of Guthrie’s open-hearted, nakedly confessional love songs (“Fly High” and “Careless Reckless Love,” among others). And then there’s a wry Guthrie come-on line sung by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James: “I need a progressive woman,” he croons, “I need a socially conscious woman to ease my revolutionary mind.”
But the Guthrie who painted “This Machine Kills Fascists” across the front of his guitar does live on here, especially in the opening track when Son Volt’s Jay Farrar sings, “Don’t let any earthly calamity knock your dreamer and your hoping machine out of order.” And the titular closer implores those new multitudes to “build my world over … build my world with love [and] move this generation.” Pretty timely sentiments for a dead guy.
This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 5, page 42).