Human Beings, Hoping Machines: Note of Hope, Woody Guthrie’s words, given music by bassist Rob Wasserman, with Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Chris Whitley, and Jackson Browne

By Daniel Garrett

Woody Guthrie, Note of Hope
(Woody Guthrie’s New York reflections and recollections)
Produced by Rob Wasserman, Nora Guthrie, Steve Rosenthal,
Clare Wasserman, and Jeffrey A. Greenberg
429 Records/SLG
Steep Productions, 2011

“Times are gittin’ hard folks, they might git harder still. No matter who wins office in that Big House on the hill. If ya wanta git by at all, you already by now should know, some fellers cuss as good times come and go, but, I got my wild card in the hole,” are some of the streetwise words in “Wild Card in the Hole,” words set down in a journal by the great American bard Woody Guthrie when he was a young man decades ago, the one-hundredth anniversary of his birthday occurring in 2012. Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), the son of a guitarist father and folk music loving schoolteacher mother, knew folk, blues, and Native American music, and he began traveling by train at 15, performing for workers and the homeless; and he performed on Los Angeles radio, became a Communist, was championed by folklorist Alan Lomax, and recorded Dust Bowl ballads. Obviously Guthrie’s words were direct and earthy, honestly observant, using ordinary language, sometimes slangy and with irregular grammar, and the world opens up within that language. He is best known for having written the anthem “This Land is Your Land” and for his autobiography, Bound for Glory, published in 1943. The creative contributors to Note of Hope, a musical anthology based on the words of Woody Guthrie, consists of Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Tom Morello, Lou Reed, Michael Franti, Kurt Elling, Ani DiFranco, Studs Terkel, Nelli McKay, Chris Whitley, Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, and Jackson Browne. Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie initially asked bassist Rob Wasserman to work on the project, composing music, and the two then invited others to participate.

The introductory composition “The Note of Hope” by Van Dyke Parks manages to sound like both classical and folk music, and it—inspired by Guthrie’s thought that “largely, about all a human being is anyway is just a hoping machine”—has vitality. Madeleine Peyroux, the jazz singer who seems haunted by Billie Holiday, gives “Wild Card in the Hole” a low, bluesy funk, shuffling and sure, featuring Tony Scherr on guitar, Gary Versace on organ, Darren Beckett on drums, and Rob Wasserman on bass; and the lyrics of the song, shrewd and funny, go beyond convention in the determination to survive. “I need a progressive woman, I need an awfully liberal woman. Ain’t no reactionary baby can ease my revolutionary mind,” sings Tom Morello, of the band of Rage Against the Machine, who also performs as the Nightwatchman, and here he performs under his own name the half-spoken and half-sung composition, “Ease My Revolutionary Mind,” a self-aware, amusing, and wise piece. The instrumental music offers the pace of punk as foundation for the verbal intonations of Beat poetry or laid-back rap. “If I could only make you see babe, how I ache and pain and bleed, I know you’d come a runnin’ if you blistered both your feet,” Morello sings. Owing more money than one will ever see is the subject of “The Debt I Owe,” which acknowledges different kinds of debt, and the composition is handled by Lou Reed, whose voice sounds good, or, well, as good as his voice can sound, seeming to emerge out of both strain and thought, though it is a leap to call his recitation singing. Reed sounds more literary than musical; and his reading, probably, does not yield the latent dark humor in the words.

Michael Franti’s jazzy, sensual interpretation of “Union Love Juice” makes Guthrie sound like a blend of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and LL Cool J. Michael Franti’s voice is confident, low, masculine, and suggestive. “I am the meat and the flower of sex,” sings Franti, confidently, coolly. Franti is supported by Irvin Mayfield on trumpet, and Buddha Miller on turntable, as well as Don Heffington’s percussion, Peter Atanasoff’s guitar, and bassist Wasserman. “Most buildings you see pull their blinds down to try to keep me from coming in. I rip down ignorant bricks stacked as fast as shaky fear can line them up and square them, raise them, and build them,” Franti says, the personification of erotic desire overwhelming repression. I have heard good things about the jazz singer Kurt Elling, without having heard much of his music, so was glad to hear him in “Peace Pin Boogie,” which uses political ideology as a romantic standard—really as a standard for all social and spiritual acceptance. That composition brings Elling close to both (the comic) Mose Allison and (the very serious) Gil Scott-Heron.

Ani DiFranco animates “Voice,” full of poetic yet practical ruminations in search of an elusive commonality, in search of voices not heard often in the popular media; and the piece contains found and sampled sound, and twanging guitar. “I Heard A Man Talking” features the journalist Studs Terkel (I read his book Working when I was young, and loved it for years, and later learned it was considered as essential by others); and in “I Heard A Man Talking,” the weirdly sympathetic perspective of a thief and his perception of life during wartime is presented—and two ordinary people get together, against a music bass and other, lighter strings. The thief admits that it was easier to steal during the great economic depression than during the war (he thought of himself as doing retributive stealing, but now finds the deprivation of others too discouraging).

In “Old Folks” a lonely person sees the reddened, troubled eyes in damp lined faces of old people walking past, perceiving their personal histories, their pleasure and pain, drawing strength from their survival. With pretty voice and piano, Nellie McKay turns a pedestrian observation in “Old Folks” into something close to a lullaby; and her phrasing is crisp, with what might be merely theatrical seeming dramatic but also purer than that. I suspect McKay has given more melody to the piece than anyone else would. Chris Whitley, a favorite of mine since I heard his moodily sensuous album Living with the Law, makes “On the High Lonesome,” a pieced focused on relationship problems and sexual conflict, into a half-spoken, half-sung country blues, lodged between agony and illumination; and the performance, in which he uses different parts of his voice and creates a clashing instrumental music, is one more thing to make a music lover miss the now deceased Whitley.

Note of Hope comes to an end with the work of Pete Seeger and Jackson Browne. “There is a Feeling in Music,” by Woody Guthrie’s old friend Pete Seeger singing in a deep, wise, fatherly voice with banjo-player Tony Trischka and bassist Rob Wasserman, affirms how music connects people: Seeger says, “Pain has paid you a profit in its own strange way” and “the word is the music and the people are the song.” Jackson Browne, the singer-songwriter and environmental activist, finds desire, empathy, love, philosophy, and politics in the cathartically epic “You Know the Night.” Browne’s voice is faithful, fervent, and firm; and the song sounds like the commingling of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne. Browne clearly enjoys the rhymes, which come in bunches, as he describes how imperfect people are made better by affection; and the song allows him the power of a poet and prophet.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.