Woody Guthrie wasn’t just the voice of a generation — he was the voice of several generations. Known reverently as America’s premier folk singer, he was the voice of the people, the voice of protest and a voice of peace. He not only wrote classic original songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” but also kept traditional tunes alive and relevant in our nation’s historical repertoire.
It is within this history of retelling the tales of others that the recent “New Multitudes” record came to be. Paying homage to Woody, with his centennial birthday approaching, four of America’s most earnest troubadours united to honor him by recording an album of his previously unreleased songs and taking those tunes on the road for a brief American tour.
First conceived by Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gob Iron) back in 1995 as a potential collaboration between he and Billy Bragg, the idea fell through and his old Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy pursued the project with Bragg instead.
“I don’t know what happened,” says Farrar of the Wilco frontman. “But frankly I don’t really care, which is important.”
A decade later, Farrar, together with Anders Parker (also of Gob Iron), received the blessing of Woody’s daughter, Nora, to browse the Guthrie archives and record more unreleased material. Farrar says the ar-chives occupied just a few rooms, but they were filled with material. “It was essentially a repository of all things Woody,” he says.
Farrar says Guthrie’s importance can’t be overstated: “You can draw a flowchart with people that Woody Guthrie influenced along the way,” he says. “Woody was the first guy who could change the world through music.”
After recording tracks with Parker, Farrar expanded the band with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (who for this project goes by Yim Yames) and Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel).
“This is one of the most humbling feelings I’ve ever experienced,” says Johnson. “It is truly one of the highest honors. ... Woody Guthrie was always important to me as a kid, thanks to my folks and my grandparents and adults around me. By 1997, I really started exploring deeper into how complex and encompassing he was on all life levels. I always kind of thought that Woody was one of the original punk rockers. ... He was looking death straight in the eye and not afraid of it.”
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