The pervasive influence of Woody Guthrie

A lot can change in a century.

In the one hundred years since the birth of Woody Guthrie our planet has witnessed two world wars, several recessions, the emergence of the Internet and the first African-American President of the United States.

Some things, though, remain timeless. A wandering, restless spirit Woody Guthrie wrote continuously - and these artefacts are still inspiring new musicians.

Held in a vast collection, the Woody Guthrie archive sits at the centre of 'New Multitudes'. A new work featuring Jay Farrar, Jim James, Anders Parker and Will Johnson the album finds each of the four musicians interpreting material they have discovered in the archives.

A rich, wonderful project 'New Multitudes' works both as an apt tribute to the work of Woody Guthrie and a stunning ensemble set in its own right. ClashMusic managed to get Jay Farrar on the phone to tell us more.

- - -

How did you first encounter Woody Guthrie’s music?
I heard the music of Woody Guthrie growing up, through my parents. Both my parents played folk and that was the sort of music I heard growing up. Later on when I was ten or eleven, getting into the music of Bob Dylan I began to encounter him again. There was definitely a familiarity with Woody Guthrie in general. It could have felt weird to be looking through the lyrics of such an icon but to me it was more about inspiration.

And the project began when Nora Guthrie (Woody's daughter) contacted you?
Actually it went back to about 1995, I was on the road with Son Volt and a request came through for us to work with Woody Guthrie lyrics – working with Billy Bragg. That didn’t happen at the time. Fast forward to 2006 – I approached Nora with the idea of working with Woody Guthrie lyrics. I wanted to do it on my own terms, and that has now come to fruition.

Did it build up and evolve gradually?
The project evolved in different stages, for sure. I started working on this in 2006, piecing it together whenever we could find the time in our schedules. Our primary endeavours were being on tour and writing songs for our main projects. Then in 2009 Jim James visited the Woody Guthrie archives and began recording a few things. Jim and I spoke, decided to join forces and brought Anders Johnson into the mix at that point. Later we all met up in Brooklyn, New York and started recording there and then later in Saint Louis.

Each of you have such distinct characters, did you find that added something unique to the sessions?
You know, we did not go in with a masterplan or any kind of masterplan. We just wanted to let it all evolve organically and that’s exactly what happened. There were no guidelines, we just let it evolve the way it did. There was definitely a symbiotic situation when we all got together in Brooklyn, we all brought different things and we all learned different things from the experience. There was an element of being back at music camp!

How far did the relationship build up between the four musicians?
Yeah the true collaborative aspect happened when we all got together in the studio. We were in Brooklyn, New York for about a week. There was a really good dynamic, a good chemistry. I remember a certain song – ‘Corinne’ – where Jim James does a sort of approximation of a person playing a song but Jim does it as a vocal sound. That’s something which I have subsequently seen him do live with My Morning Jacket – I was really surprised by that. I remember Jim was really surprised that I knew all these really obscure country songs that Jim hadn’t heard before.

New Multitudes

- - -

You worked from notepads, scraps of lyrics?
Primarily the words the songs were constructed from were pre-existing lyrics written by Woody Guthie. But those lyrics had never been put to music. In a few instances we used words derived from Woody’s journals – he had extensive journals as well which were comprised of.. anything off the top of his head. All stream of consciousness but then sometimes it was really routine. Stuff in there like “9am Make coffee – 9.30 Eat Breakfast”. Every now and then he would have something which would strike me as profound like “music is the language of the mind which travels free from the laws of time and space”. It was an interesting juxtaposition of routine and profound statements in the journals.

Is the music also informed by Woody Guthrie’s output?
I think we were primarily drawing inspiration from the spirit of Woody Guthrie. I think that can be found on the 2006 songbook release. Woody Guthrie is one of the first people to really come up with the idea that music changed the world, and there’s a passage in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography where he talks about during the beginning of his music endeavours in Oklahoma he found that people paid more attention when he was singing about current events. That’s something that I learned from Woody Guthrie – the times, writing about current events.

Of course those events are not current anymore, so how do you approach this material from a modern perspective?
Surprisingly there really was a lot of timeless elements to the majority of what Woody Guthrie was writing and creating. In terms of what I chose to put music too, if they were journals or lyrics it had to be something I had a strong personal connection to. Some frame of reference or in some ways the lyrics had to be compelling. There’s also a bonus CD coming up with eleven more songs on it. On that bonus edition that are songs about prostitution, cocaine, drug use. Also particularly this American phenomenon which happens during the years alcohol was prohibited where people turned to drinking wood derived alcohol products which caused extreme nerve damage. There’s a term for it – jick walk. Where people drank that wood alcohol and had a very distinctive walk where they couldn’t really control their legs any more.

You obviously worked on a vast raft of material, how did you filter this down to form ‘New Multitudes’?
Ultimately, everything is going to be released. There’s twelve songs on this and the bonus edition CD will have eleven additional songs. We had space for an event called Record Store Day where record stores.. it’s actually they have special releases on this day in record shops. We’re offering a deluxe vinyl release which has four more songs on it. Ultimately, I guess there was a process whereby some songs got released before but ultimately all the songs are going to be released.

Do you feel you’ve got closer to the real Woody Guthrie?
Yeah I think you really get a feeling from the archives of the breadth of Woody Guthrie’s creativity. It was staggering, really. I probably only made it through.. not even half of the lyrics which are there. The archives are a pretty substantial repository of all things Woody. I think this was something which really struck me was his painting, because you know Woody’s first profession was sign-painting. Pretty amazing stuff.

You can see the influence of Woody Guthrie in a lot of music and movements which came later from the folk revival of the late 50s and 60s. You can see it in Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer of The Clash – the list just goes on and on.

Why does he have that resonance?
His work resonates in part because the song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ is kind of an informal national anthem. I remember singing that song when I was growing up in school.

Do you still feel a real connection with Woody Guthrie’s America?
I think that language still resonates. What you find in Woody’s work. Perhaps his keen eye for social commentary – he wrote about social and economic justice and so far in America those things have not gone away.

Is that sense of endless possibility still there in America?
Yeah. Especially in the West, it’s much more palpable. You feel it when driving in the American West, that’s for sure.

Is this your final word on Woody Guthrie?
I don’t know. Will Johnson and I were just talking about that yesterday. Talking about the future, and we both agreed that we would do it again.

- - -

'New Multitudes' is out now.

Follow Clash: