Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jay Farrar Talks Woody Guthrie And "New Multitudes"

On February 28th, Rounder Records released New Multitudes (which is available as an expanded deluxe 2-CD edition). It is an elaborate and collaborative project that brought together the voices of some of today's unarguably best songwriters with some of the unpublished lyrics, writings, and artwork from the Woody Guthrie Archive.

Using these unpublished sources as inspiration, Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gob Iron), Will Johnson (Centro-matic), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron), and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk) have produced a richly rewarding collection that honors the legacy of Mr. Guthrie, while very much injecting their own sensibilities into his work. New Multitudes may seem, at first glance, as an homage to one of the greatest American songwriters, but it is very much a true collaboration that impressively spans generations.

The songwriters have fused their own voices and compositions with Mr. Guthrie's own thoughts and unearthed lyrical works, to create a song cycle that speaks to the timelessness, universality, and inspirational influence that Woody Guthrie has had, and continues to have on artists, songwriters, listeners, and readers everywhere.

As a longtime fan of Jay Farrar's work with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, as well as his own solo projects and various collaborations over the years, it was an honor to speak with him to discuss this very exciting new project.

When did you first hear Woody Guthrie?

Jay Farrar:
As far back as I can remember the music of Woody Guthrie permeated and was omnipresent. My father lived through the Depression and played and sang songs from the era like "Jesse James" and "Pretty Boy Floyd", in a rudimentary style that evoked the aesthetic of Woody Guthrie. Both of my parents played Woody Guthrie songs and were eager to pass along what they had learned.

It was just understood that this guy was important. When I started to play guitar around age 10, I became aware of the pervasive influence that Woody's music and message had on Bob Dylan, as well as ideological parallels with bands like the Clash.

What struck you most about his work throughout your career (during Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and through your own solo work) before working on this project?

Jay: There is a stark quality to his voice, I mean you can hear "The Dustbowl" in it, and he lived it like he sang it, with absolutely no artifice. I think Woody Guthrie was the first guy to effectively put across the idea that music can change the world. Joe Hill and others were there before, but Woody's music reached more people.

Can you talk about how Woody Guthrie's work has influenced your own work?

Jay: In his autobiography "Bound For Glory"  Woody talks about learning early on that people paid more attention when he sang topical songs about current events. I think I will always turn to Woody Guthrie's music for inspiration when the world doesn't seem right.

How and when did the idea for this project occur?

Jay: Back in 1995-96, a request came through Warner Brothers Records for Son Volt to work with Woody Guthrie lyrics on a project with Billy Bragg. Nothing happened with that, but the idea of working with Woody Guthrie lyrics at the archives stuck. In 2006, I met Nora, and I started visiting the archives, as did Anders Parker.

Anders and I started writing and recording whenever we could find time, sometimes recording separately, and other times together in Brooklyn to augment the stuff we had been working on. Jim James visited the archives several years later and Nora played some of the music that Anders and I had been working on. After that, Jim and I spoke about joining forces and asking Will Johnson to contribute as well.

Can you discuss the process of combining the lyrics and music?

Jay: The Woody Guthrie archives are a repository of all things Woody, from lyrics to journals, to sketches and paintings. I just kept looking until a lyric jumped out based on some frame of reference (my father used the expression "Sheba Queen"). It was those lyrics with which Will Johnson adroitly wrote the song "Chorine My Sheba Queen".

In other cases Woody's lyrical subject  matter just seemed compelling with references and themes of nuclear holocaust ("World's On Fire"), or prostitution ("San Antone Meathouse"), and a legal alcohol neurotoxin sold during prohibition called "Jamaica Ginger" ("Jake Walk Blues").

Overall, I found the process of working with Woody Guthrie's lyrics to be fluid and inspirational. From a writing perspective, I believe that it is good to deviate from routine, and in this case, in a surreal way, we were working with Woody Guthrie! 

What has this experience added to your admiration and the influence of Guthrie's work, life, legacy?

Jay: From visiting the archives one soon realizes that Woody was exceptionally prolific in terms of creative output. Since his early profession was a sign painter, Woody was able to get creative in ways that combined art and lyrics. Some of those interesting combinations where the art and lyrics are juxtaposed, or sketches superimposed over lyrics, are included in the deluxe edition release of New Multitudes.

Which Guthrie recordings would you personally recommend to new listeners of his work (who may even be discovering Guthrie's recordings through the New Multitudes album)?

Jay: Woody possessed a unique poetic sensibility with great use of alliteration for effect. Here are songs to look for on a myriad of releases out there:

"Pastures of Plenty"
"I've Got To Know"
"Hard Travelin'"
"Hobo's Lullaby"
"Ramblin' Round"
"1913 Massacre"
"Blowin' Down This Road"
"I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore"
"End Of The Line"

If you had to pick one Woody Guthrie recording that stands above for you, which would it be and why?

Jay: A couple of songs seem particularly timeless. "I've Got To Know" with it's straightforward ideology is relevant today, and will be tomorrow. "Deportee" is perhaps Woody's most poignant set of lyrics.

From the experience of working on the New Multitudes album, how has Woody Guthrie's work changed for you when you listen to it now?

I visualize more now when I listen to Woody's music: the sketches, the journal notebooks, and the mementos (leaves and twigs) that Woody sometimes included in the journals are now part of a slideshow.

It was such an honor to be a part of this project, and I am very thankful to Nora for giving us the opportunity.

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