Woody Guthrie reportedly left some 3,000 manuscript songs behind, most if not all lyrics without a hint of melody. Back in the ’30s and ’40s there were no smart phones, tape recorders, and precious few wire recorders. Radio stations had record lathes that could record broadcasts, but if Woody ever put his notebook lyrics to music, the melodies have been lost. However, one of Woody’s children, Nora Guthrie, a few years ago began encouraging musicians to set the lyrics to music. Nora Guthrie is the founder of the Woody Guthrie Archive, and has assiduously spent much of her life keeping Woody’s memory alive with festivals, concerts, special projects, books and recordings, nicely documented in her Wikipedia entry.
Over the last two decades, Nora Guthrie has commissioned folk, folk-rock, and even klezmer musicians to compose music for Woody’s manuscript songs. But, aside from maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or Bob Dylan, who are devotées, it is hard to imagine a more fitting match than Del McCoury. Surprisingly, it took a while before Ms. Guthrie settled a batch of lyrics on Del:
[I]t wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody. “After hearing Del’s show,” she recalls, “ I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s. An invitation [that] went to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’ s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.
For McCoury, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,” he remembers. “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his. So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was. She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.” (From the McCoury Music press release)
To my mind, it should have been obvious. While Woody Guthrie was adopted by the ‘folk’ and politically left elites in New York City as their ‘Oklahoma cowboy’, and while his songs came out of the Depression, they were by no means all political. He was a writer in the rural Anglo-American mountain/hillbilly/western/blues traditions of music-by-ear, like so many country and bluegrass musicians today, and wrote about all aspects of life as he observed it. Del McCoury is a writer himself, and has a great ear for a song; look how he made “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Richard Thompson) his own, just to mention two.
The songs on this CD are not so consequential as those, and Del’s touch is light, but astonishingly gives life to Woody’s lyrics, most maybe 70 years old. Says Del,
“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit. Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no. He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs. I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did.”(From the McCoury Music press release)
And he and the band did, with great aplomb. The songs flow as naturally as if Woody himself had sung them; indeed, once you hear one, it is hard to imagine a different melody. The arrangements form naturally from the practiced pickin’ of arguably the best ensemble in bluegrass music. But the great cachet of this album is that it’s plain entertaining. It is Woody at his most playful, whether celebrating the local shade-tree mechanic, “Cheap Mike,”
If y’r valves are stickin’;
If y’r crankshaft’s flat;
If y’r losin’ alla y’r bolts an’ taps;
Just guide ‘er and ride ‘er
Downta Cheap Mike’s Lot;
‘Cause Mike knows what ta do!
or making fun of “Wimmen’s Hats,”
—a period piece, to be sure, that might be lost on today’s youngsters. Then there is the woeful tale of the miner and his gold-digging girl:
There’s a girl living high in the city
And she’s living in luxury untold
How I fell for her line ’twas a pity
Now she’s living on my Californy Gold.
Here’s a video of Del and the band recording “Californy Gold”:
But maybe my favorite is his send-up of “The New York Trains,” from the perspective of a newcomer from Texas:
The trains run through the buildings
and also underground
And you spend another nickel
every time you turn around
Some good period shots in this YouTube video:
Not all is comedic. “Left in This World All Alone” might have been written for Bill Monroe or the Stanleys, as it certainly examplifies the theme of loneliness that pervades so much of the mountain music that became bluegrass. Del McCoury cuts loose with his best high, lonesome bluegrass tenor, all the more remarkable that he can do it at his age:
There is an admonition to keep holding family reunions, even if some are no longer with us:
There never would be any family reunions
If some of you cry over one you see gone
You’ve got to keep meeting with all of your family
If one or two pass and some others can’t come.
(reminding me of course of the country classic, “Sweeter Than the Flowers”).
And Del also selected a tender paean to a baby boy, who we have to assume is Woody’s:
If again I could be, little fellow
As young and as handsome as you
I would live life all over exactly the same,
So I’d meet, little fellow, with you.
There’s more. Between satire and sentiment we get glimpses of Woody’s life and experience (“Dirty Overhalls,” [sic] “Because You Took Me In Out of the Rain,” etc.) that simultaneously take us back to times past and the common present. Del has the knack of making us believe that Woody is speaking through him and the band. There isn’t much, besides “Wimmen’s Hats” and the price of a subway ride, that we can’t find immediately familiar. This album of simple, delightful songs is a lovely tribute to the poet, songwriter, and troubadour for one compelling reason: it’s just great fun! /CL