Videos by American Songwriter
In the spirit of Woody Guthrie, four diverse songwriters — Jim James, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson and Anders Parker — banded together create New Multitudes, an album of all new songs using the unpublished lyrics they found in Woody Guthrie’s archives.
By now you’ve had time to check out our New Multitudes feature in the March/April issue. Here’s the raw interviews, which feature plenty of bonus material, for your enjoyment. Happy reading.
How familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music were you before taking on the project?
I don’t really remember hearing Woody’s music for the first time because it was always in my consciousness. My father was not a professional musician, but he played guitar and piano and sang, mostly folk songs. He was influenced by the folk revival of the ’50s and early ’60s and had a collection of records that reflected that: Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Josh White, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, etc….
I have a vague memory of singing “This Land Is Your Land” in early school (pre-school? 1st grade?) and was familiar with “Pastures of Plenty,” too, from an early age. I also knew the line “As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men/ Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” Again, not sure where/when the hell I picked that up, but it’s been rattling around in the old brain box forever.
So, I was aware of Woody and had a vague idea of who he was but it wasn’t until I really got into Dylan (as most songwriters do, I suppose) and discovered what an influence he had been on Dylan that I really started to explore Woody and his music in depth. From there I dove in. (Me thinking, “WTF, Bobby D stole his whole thing from this guy! Amazing! Awesome! Who is this Woody guy?”)
What do you admire about Woody Guthrie as a person?
I guess what I admire is what I gleaned from seeing and reading lyrics, notes, pictures, doodles and all the rest at the archives. He was a machine of creation. And nothing seemed forced, as far as I could tell. Everything seemed to flow out of him, rivers of explosions of ideas and thoughts. Some were multi page lyrics that went on and on. Others were just a couple of succinct stanzas. He was the archer and his art was many arrows. Straight and true and stark. Detailed journal entries, doodles, notes, and on and on. It was inspiring and awe inducing to behold.
And from reading about him and hearing those who knew him talk about him I learned that he was a force of nature, a wanderer, a risk taker, a true free spirit. All those things appealed to me when I first learned about him and they still do. What do you admire about Woody Guthrie as a songwriter?
Something that is hard to do as a songwriter is to take a complex topic and distill it down and make it simple and catchy and Woody could do that. His best songs are deceptively simple, but the poetry therein is full of sinew and bone.
Tell us about a few of your favorite tracks on the album.
It’s hard to choose just one… I have a favorite for everyone involved:
— New Multitudes: (Jay) I love the meditative quality to the music and the melody and hearing everyone’s voices on the second part of each stanza.
— No Fear: (Will) The sentiment is heavy, but so wonderful and poignant. And the way Will set it against a kind of positive melody and rhythm makes it an affirmation.
— Talking Empty Bed Blues: (Jim) That great melody and acoustic at the beginning and then the punch when the band comes in, followed by the group harmonies… So sweet.
— Angel’s Blues: (AP) I liked that the subject matter was not something I traditionally associated with Woody. I put this in the “unreliable narrator” category of writing. I like the molasses groove we got and Jay’s lap-steel solo is the cherry on top.
Any interesting origin stories about the creation of these songs?
I really don’t remember much about the actual writing of the songs… a good thing in my estimation; means I wasn’t thinking about it. They all kind of tumbled out.
One coincidence — the first session I did for the recordings started on Woody’s birthday. Not planned. Just happened that way. I took that as a good omen.
Did you use any napkin lyrics or anything similar?
One of them was — “Around New York”, which was just scrawled on a scrap of paper. This was it:
Around New York
Around New York
Around New York I go
If an atom bomb hits New York
It’ll be New York no more
The tune wrote itself. The most “Woody” of the melodies I wrote, for sure.
Do you have any anecdotes of a song “choosing you”, or feeling Woody’s spirit?
Well, I sure felt Woody’s spirit at the archives. It was kind of eerie, but not in a bad way. There was just so much stuff and most everything is original (some of the more famous pieces are in safekeeping). So, sitting there, leafing through the actual lyrics that Woody wrote and drew and typed was, well, heavy. Everything is so vibrant and packed with life I couldn’t help feel like Woody was there.
As far as the choosing of the songs goes, I kind of tried to clear my mind and go with my gut. There was so much to look at and limited time, so a lot of it was just glancing and reacting. I kept a list of things that appealed to me and then the archives would send stuff that wasn’t used already or slated for use. (Jay got a couple that I had wanted…)
What was it like working together with three other collaborators?
It was such a long process from start to finish. Jay and I started visiting the Guthrie Archive in the fall of 2006. And we recorded a lot of tunes before Jim and Will got involved. It was all very piecemeal. (If we had actually done it all in one session it probably only would’ve taken us 2 or 3 weeks.)
When Jim and Will got involved it breathed new life into the project.
The actual recording process was very smooth. Nothing was labored over and most songs were tracked in a couple takes. There wasn’t a lot of agonizing over things. Ideas were tried… if they didn’t work they were abandoned. It was loose and easygoing and fun all around.
Did you guys ever argue or get stumped?
How much pressure did you feel to do a good job, working on Woody’s songs?
After I got my copies of Woody’s lyrics I looked at them for a while and then put them aside for a few days. I wanted to clear my mind and forget that they were Woody’s lyrics and free myself from any notions I had about what I was about to do. I wanted to approach them free of concerns about who he was and what they may mean and be free to let the words take me where they might, without all the historical baggage.
If Woody were getting his start today, what do you think he’d be doing?
Itinerant software designer? Standup comedy?
Dunno. They don’t write songs like he used to.
Were you ever into the idea of being a hobo, like Woody is in his book Bound For Glory, and seeing the country?
Yes. My father was from a region in Northern Vermont known as The Northeast Kingdom (about as far north as you can go in the state before you hit Canada). I spent a lot of time up there as a kid and there was a rail yard across the lake from the family farm there and every morning I would awake to the sound of freight trains coupling and uncoupling. The sound would bang and echo and rattle all across the lake valley. It was like music to my young ears and I used to dream of riding the rails. Instead of doing that I formed a rock band and saw the States as a different kind of hobo.
What are your thoughts on the Mermaid Avenue sessions? Were they an inspiration?
I have heard and enjoyed the sessions, but never owned the records. Purposely tried to avoid any inspiration from those recordings. I like the tune “California Stars.”
Did you learn anything from doing this project?
That legend is slippery and a person is most often deeper and more complex than the myth. I think that Woody truly was ahead of his time…. In looking at the songs that we all chose I wonder if some of the songs that Woody wrote were just too ahead of his time or if the topics were verboten or too risque for the time.
Did anything surprise you when working on this project?
Yes, that it actually is coming out! Jay and I started this in 2006. Jim and Will got involved a couple years later. It was a long haul and there were times I doubted that it would see the light of day.
How does it feel to be a part of Woody Guthrie’s legacy?
Are there any similarities to the music you write and perform and Woody’s music ?
I kind of think of Woody as one of the original punk rockers. He did his thing in an honest and raw and straightforward way. It wasn’t polished or refined or overworked. Although I don’t consider myself “punk rock” (or a “folk singer” for that matter) I do always have that aesthetic in mind. I always want a certain rawness and, of course, honesty in everything I do.
Would you want to do something like this again with a different artist? Anyone in particular?
I wouldn’t say that it wouldn’t be interesting to see Bob Dylan’s leftovers.
Can you imagine others finishing your own lyrics one day?
Dunno that they could read my writing…