Woody Guthrie was one of the most important figures, if not the most important figure in modern folk music. Woody’s impact on the world of music is still felt today, more than 40 years after his passing and in the year that he would have turned 100 years old. His lyrics and music have been an inspiration for generations of musicians including many who have taken on Woody’s unrecorded material and breathed new life into it, most notably Billy Bragg and Wilco and their Mermaid Avenue sessions.
More recently Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt), Anders Parker (Varnaline), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Will Johnson (Centro-matic) collaborated on a Guthrie inspired project called New Multitudes. Much like Bragg and Wilco, the foursome took to the Woody Guthrie archives guided by Guthrie’s daughter, and curator of the archives, Nora. What the songwriters found were notepads, napkins, journals, basically anything that Woody so much as scribbled a line on. These artifacts became the driving force behind a collection of over 25 songs that were released under the New Multitudes moniker earlier this year via Rounder Records.
As part of the centennial celebration of Woody’s birth, New Multitudes will be performing live at this year’s Newport Folk Festival along with other performances in honor of Woody including one by various Guthrie family members dubbed Guthrie Family Reunion.
What makes the New Multitudes project so special though is that four individual songwriters with differing styles and backgrounds were able to collaborate under the common inspiration of Woody’s unfinished work. Through a very informative interview series with each New Multitudes collaborator in American Songwriter (Jay, Anders, Jim, Will) we learned that each of the four songwriters reviewed Woody’s works individually and developed their own song ideas before coming together and solidifying the tracks in a collaborative setting. For each songwriter Woody’s words were interpreted and imagined in a different way, and for each, the inspiration and legacy of Woody took on a different meaning.
After thoroughly exploring New Multitudes and reading many an interview on the process behind making the record, we decided to find out what impact Woody Guthrie has had on other individuals in the music industry. We took to the streets (actually our email inbox) and asked, “What does Woody Guthrie mean to you?” Here is what we found out:
“For a few years now a lot of the Newport Folk staff wear t-shirts that say ‘What Would Woody Do?’ in honor of Guthrie. It’s a mantra we cite to make sure everything we do at Newport Folk stays as authentic and genuine as possible. Woody represented the entirety of the human condition, humor, passion, truth, tragedy and celebration. If you want to keep it real, all you need to ask is ‘What Would Woody Do?’ Trust me it works.”
- Jay Sweet (Producer, Newport Folk Festival)
“I picked up the Woody Guthrie Library of Congress Recordings on vinyl many years ago. As I listened, I became fascinated with the songs and stories he would tell. His art painted an honest picture of the people, and the tough times many of them faced in our country at the time.”
- Chris Van Slyke (Founder, Boston Through My Eyes)
“Woody Gutherie is an American icon, a hero for working class Americans and in many ways the embodiment of the American experience. He chased the American dream using song as his vehicle for change and left us all with a body of work that stands the test of time. His songs are just as relevant today as they were in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s and he will always be a true inspiration as one of the great American songwriters.”
If you can’t take it from these guys, then just ask Justine Townes Earle: