Friday, May 11, 2012

Words by Woody: Guthrie's Greatest Gifts

Listening to the new box set, from Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions got me thinking about what are the best adaptions of Woody Guthrie's words to the music of others:

1: Bob Dylan & Joan Baez: Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
When schoolteacher Martin Hoffman set this 1948 Guthrie poem about the dehumanization of immigrants to music he really could not have know how germane those words would be to American politics fifty years later or that he would start a trend still booming to this day. His version was spread by Pete Seeger and became a centerpiece of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue of the mid-seventies.

Bob Dylan & Joan Baez - Deportee by vicky7xthomas

2: Billy Bragg & Wilco: Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key
The nineties may not have been Brit folk-punker Billy Bragg's best decade as a solo artist but his success in bringing Woody Guthrie into the 21st century, a task for which he was anointed  by Nora Guthrie, will remain one of the most celebrated accomplishments of his life.

3: Wilco & Billy Bragg: California Stars
Despite having a less reverent, historically-minded view of the task of adapting Guthrie's words than Mr. Bragg, Chicago alt-country/NOT alt-country band Wilco drew up a stellar set of songs in order to play The Band to Bragg's Dylan.

4.  Jim James, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, and Anders Parker: Careless Reckless Love
Curious that Nora Guthrie chose to have Jay Farrar, former partner of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, into the archives but the results are pretty as hell, so let us ignore any subtext in her choice.

5. The Dropkick Murphys: Shipping Up to Boston
Boston celtic-punks The Dropkick Murphy's earned a trip to the Guthrie Archives and came out of with one of their most famous songs and an appearance in Martin Scorsese's The Departed.

6. The Klezmatics:  Mermaid Avenue
New York Jewish-folk preservationists, the Klezamtics celebrated another aspect of Woody's words with two [!] collections, Wonder Wheel (2006) and Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah (2006).

So what's the most successful melding of Woody's words and modern music? Let us know in  the COMMENTS section.


  1. Ry Cooder does a great version of do re mi see here :

    1. Slightly different category but cool nonetheless.

  2. I always thought The Byrds did the definitive version of "Deportee." There are a lot of terrific songs on the first volume especially of the Bragg/Wilco works. The Klezmatics tune is tremendous and a natural fit, since Guthrie's wife was Jewish and he lived in Brooklyn. Joanna Newsom has a well-regarded album of unpublished Guthrie lyrics set to music but I haven't heard it.

    1. I wasn't sure there really was a 'definitive version' of the song - but if there is I'd be okay with it being the Byrds version.

  3. It's nice to hear the spoken intro and see 'em play, but I thought I'd offer this link to the Klezmatics' studio version of "Mermaid Avenue", which does the song and band more justice sonically, and the lyrics are more audible. I believe the two Guthrie albums represent the first-ever English-language performances by the group. By the way, the original YT poster's telephone-game interpretation of the artist credit is hilarious: "Woody Guthrie and his group perform..."

    Also, here's a nice dip into the Woody archives by the great songwriter Slaid Cleaves, an adaptation of the unrecorded lyric "This Morning I Am Born Again". Mike Scott of the Waterboys had adapted this lyric a few years before Slaid, but it doesn't look like Mike's version is on YT.

    Thanks for the post, Jeffen!

  4. 1) Love that Klezmatics song (never imagined myself saying that) thanks for the tip to the way better version.

    2) Speaking of tips,that Slaid Cleaves adaptation should make it onto the sequel to this post!


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