Joel Rafael Band,
Songs of Woody Guthrie
(And Tales Worth Telling),
Volume II

(Appleseed, 2005)

Today, Woody Guthrie's stature as an essential American songwriter appears assured and unchallengeable. That didn't seem so certain not all that long ago. To many critics and musicians, if they thought of him at all, Guthrie was merely an artifact of a folk revival best forgotten but for its formative influences on Bob Dylan and rockers of the 1960s generation. Or, worse, a sort of freak from a peculiar and unlamented era when Guthrie and his leftwing -- well, Popular Front -- well, not to put too fine a point on it, Communist -- associates deluded themselves into swallowing, then actively propagating, the grotesque fiction that Stalin's blood-soaked police state was indeed, as the rancid cliche had it, the workers' paradise.

The first consequential biography, Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980), blew the thick dust of sentimentality off its subject, known to hagiophiles as "Woody," portraying a man of immense, if often undisciplined, gifts and a sometimes likable but always egocentric, reckless, self-mythologizing human being, both childlike and childish. It was a riveting story but an unpretty picture. (The second important biography, Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man, published last year, only ratifies this verdict, which the factual record renders largely inescapable.) Such assessments need to be footnoted with the hardly irrelevant information that, all the while, Guthrie was suffering from a potentially fatal undiagnosed illness -- Huntington's chorea -- which hideously and relentlessly was ravaging his brain.

Messy life details aside, Dylan's unwavering insistence on Guthrie as a seminal American figure and carrier of a powerful musical tradition forced even cynics -- or, depending upon your point of view, idiots -- finally to retrench. In their revised assessment, Dylan's judgment had been more than a simple youthful crush, and perhaps Guthrie was, after all, all that. In both his rocker and acoustic folk-singer personas, Bruce Springsteen has stood in as a kind of idealized Guthrie, the left-of-center patriot whose clear eyes take in the yin and yang of America, the glory and tragedy of a grand national experiment that inspires one moment, infuriates the next. Springsteen's 1995 CD The Ghost of Tom Joad, the last two words of the title a nod to the ballad Guthrie wrote after reading John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, re-explored -- albeit in a markedly gloomier voice -- the Western landscape in which Guthrie set his most lasting songs.

Billy Bragg and Wilco's two Mermaid Avenue recordings (Elektra, 1998 and 2000) put unpublished Guthrie words to new melodies and modern arrangements. James Talley's Woody Guthrie & Songs of My Oklahoma Home (Cimarron, 1999), which drew on the Guthrie canon ("I Ain't Got No Home," "Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam," et al), so lovingly reimagined them that the songs took on heretofore unplumbed depths of meaning. I doubt that anyone will ever sing a profounder "This Land is Your Land."

The Joel Rafael Band's second Guthrie tribute -- I confess I haven't heard the first -- may not be in the big leagues with the above-mentioned players. It is, however, eminently satisfying, and happily focused on Guthrie the extraordinary musical artist as opposed to Woody the impish-and-lovable legend. Rafael, otherwise a folk-based singer-songwriter (a vocation Guthrie virtually invented), sensibly seeks out mostly little-known pieces you are unlikely to have encountered elsewhere. These are all first-rate songs. Possessed of a warm and rich voice, Rafael delivers them in a charmingly straightforward manner, joined by harmonies from the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Jennifer Warnes, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks and others and placed within easy-going string-band arrangements.

"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," which Rafael borrows from the first Mermaid Avenue disc (the melody courtesy Billy Bragg), yields the disconcerting sensation of sounding more like a Dylan song (circa 1964, the Another Side period) than a Guthrie song, as if the trajectory of inspiration had been reversed. On the other hand, Rafael's one fully original composition (lyrics as well as music), "Sierra Blanca Massacre," could pass as a neglected Guthrie classic. He wraps his own tuneful melodies around the Guthrie lyrics "Ramblin' Reckless Hobo," "Dance Around My Atom Fire," "Love Thyself" and "Your Sandal String" (which concerns John the Baptist and gives new meaning to the phrase "talking head").

Whatever composer credits assert to the contrary, Guthrie did not write "Rangers Command," "Stepstone" and "This Train is Bound for Glory," though the last provided him with a title for the famous novel often mistaken for an autobiography. If more familiar than the rest of the fare -- in part because Guthrie so often sang them -- they are the sorts of sturdy traditionals whose welcome could never wear out.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 30 April 2005

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