Woody Guthrie's 'Note Of Hope' From Beyond The Grave

Oct 3, 2011
Originally published on October 4, 2011 12:40 pm

When Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind an enormous cache of unpublished lyrics and prose, which has resulted in an exceptionally rich posthumous career. Bob Dylan, who should know, has written of Guthrie: "He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto." Though I probably shouldn't admit it, I rarely listen to Woody Guthrie for pleasure. I'd rather hear Dylan sing Guthrie's songs — or, as it turns out, a lot of other people.

Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie is the culmination of a 13-year dream for bassist Rob Wasserman and Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie. If you don't recall a Woody song called "Wild Card in the Hole," that's because jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux wrote the music for a lyric Nora chose for her. Note of Hope is the sixth album based entirely on writing that came to light after Guthrie's death, including two by Billy Bragg & Wilco, two by The Klezmatics and one by Jonatha Brooke.

These posthumous collaborations have no parallel in my experience. For more than a decade, they've been where I've gone when I felt like communing with the spirit of Woody Guthrie. I still play every one, and now Rob Wasserman has given me another. Wasserman is more than comfortable backing Lou Reed's sprechgesang, Michael Franti's rapping, and three spoken-word prose tracks by Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger and the late Studs Terkel.

Most of Note of Hope's guests are left-identified, but the texts they interpret aren't very ideological — Guthrie's playfulness, sexuality and inquisitive mind are front and center. And, though rhythm does predominate, Jackson Browne's 15-minute finale is an unrelentingly strophic meditation on the night he met his wife Marjorie. Some may call it overlong. I'm not even a Jackson Browne fan, but I must say it is hypnotic.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

When Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind a trove of unpublished lyrics and prose. And that has led to a number of albums by artists interpreting Guthrie's words. As the centennial of his birth approaches, a new album has been released, featuring a wide range of artists. It's called "Note of Hope," and critic Robert Christgau has our review.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: That's quite an endorsement. But though I probably shouldn't admit it, I rarely listen to Woody Guthrie for pleasure. I'd rather hear Dylan sing Guthrie's songs - or, as it's turned out, a lot of other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD CARD IN THE HOLE")

MADELEINE PEYROUX: (Singing) Well, some fellas cuss as good times come and go, but I got my wild card in the hole. Some wise ones play every sucker trick they know, I still got my wild card in the hole.

CHRISTGAU: That voice belongs to jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux. And if you don't recall a Woody song called "Wild Card in the Hole," that's because there wasn't one. Peyroux wrote the music for a lyric Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie chose for her, as Nora and bassist Rob Wasserman pursued their 13-year dream of completing the new "Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie." Eleven vocalists follow Van Dyke Parks's overture. One of the most unlikely is another jazz singer, Kurt Elling, doing "Peace Pin Boogie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACE PIN BOOGIE")

KURT ELLING: (Singing) Peace, peace, peace, peace, boogie for peace. Wanna kiss my sweet, I got to boogie for peace. Looks like I'm a goner, ain't got no peace pin on. Can't kiss my sweet Paige when I've got no peace pin on.

CHRISTGAU: "Note of Hope" takes the risk of elaborating rhythm rather than laying on melody. Bassist Wasserman, a renowned accompanist, is more than comfortable backing Lou Reed's song-speech; Michael Franti's rapping; and three spoken-word prose tracks by Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, and the late Studs Terkel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD A MAN TALKING")

STUDS TERKEL: (Singing) I heard a man talking last night and he said, I could actually make more money when the Depression was on. And the lady laughed at him and she said oh, you couldn't either. How could you? And the man told her, yes, I could. I made more because I could steal more. Nowadays, this damn war makes it awful hard to steal. And, besides, I don't know, I just don't enjoy stealing like I once did.

CHRISTGAU: Most of "Note of Hope's" guests are left-identified, like Guthrie, but the texts they interpret aren't very ideological. Guthrie's playfulness, sexuality and inquisitive mind are front and center. And though rhythm does predominate, Jackson Browne's 15-minute finale is an unrelentingly strophic meditation on the night Woody met his wife, and Nora's mother, Marjorie. Some may call it overlong. I'm not even a Jackson Browne fan, but I say it's hypnotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW THE NIGHT")

JACKSON BROWNE: (Singing) You know the night, you know the night. You know the night, you know the night. Did you feel this way, too, when I met you?

CHRISTGAU: "Note of Hope" is the sixth album based entirely on writing that came to light after Guthrie's death, including two by Billy Bragg and Wilco, two by the Klezmatics, and one by Jonatha Brooke. These posthumous collaborations have no parallel, in my experience. For over a decade, they've been where I've gone when I wanted to commune with the spirit of Woody Guthrie. I still play every one and now, Rob Wasserman has given me another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW THE NIGHT")

BLOCK: That was critic Robert Christgau, reviewing "Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW THE NIGHT")

BROWNE: (Singing) And it was quite unusual for some reason or another, the night turned off clear and so cold. It caused me to snuggle up closer and to hold, and hold on, hold on to the ground we gained. Hold on to the new inch of life we discovered. Hold on...

GUY RAZ, Host:

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