Music is the language of the mind that travels
Carries the key to the laws of time and space
Lonesome train whistling down the silent wail of wind
Life is the sound, creation has been a song
—“Hoping Machine” by Woody Guthrie
Like a cadre of musical brothers finally coalescing after years on the road apart, Jay Farrar, Yim Yames (Jim James), Will Johnson and Anders Parker gratefully deliver New Multitudes, their intimate interpretation of American icon and musical legend Woody Guthrie’s previously unrecorded lyrics.
Under the invitation of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to tour the Guthrie archives, each of the four songwriters were offered the chance to plumb and mine the plethora of notebooks, scratch pads, napkins, etc. for anything that might inspire them to lend their voices and give the words new life.
Initially starting off in pairs, these Americana torchbearers tried to capture the true sing-along Guthrie spirit over the course of the project. Simmering on the side burner for years after Farrar and Parker first visited the archives during a 2005 press trip to New York City for Gob Iron, their traditional folk-themed project, they decided to continue the collaboration via Guthrie’s lyrics.
“Even though it all truly began a decade earlier,” says Farrar, “the idea stuck because Woody was the one guy both my folks held in the highest regard. He was sacrosanct. I heard Woody way before I ever knew who Bob Dylan was, and if you are going to go back and retrace the roots of your musical inspiration what better way then to try and finish some of his songs. So I heard from Nora that Jim had come by the archives and Nora had played him some of the stuff Anders and I had recorded when he was passing through. And then I heard from Jim saying he had liked what he heard, and from there it really started to snowball. And then Will came on board, which was easy because he knew both Jim and I really well. Basically, it’s just one small degree of separation between all of us.”
“It was an easy recording session,” Johnson adds. “When we were all in the studio, there was definitely a constant in our chemistry and group dynamic. Sharing a common inspiration for Woody’s music gave us a true sense of purpose. It was a tremendously positive and encouraging experience, which is really a testament to the lyrics.”
The spirit of Guthrie may have been involved in more ways than one, as all four songwriters mentioned the immediate connection to the songs they chose, or as they would suggest, “chose them.” The writing came together with intense celerity, as if the mischief muse who originally penned them latched himself to each writer’s grey matter upon first contact.
“I remember I was at my apartment in Queens at the time and had a couple of the lyrics laid out on my bed,” says Parker, “and it was astonishing how rapid the songs just came, they were so ripe and leapt out at me.”
“When I got into writing the music for these songs,” adds James, who records all his non-My Morning Jacket material under the Yim Yames moniker, “it did literally just pour out of my soul and into my recorder; it was emotional. It all happened very quickly. It was a strange time in my life. I was right in the middle of being reborn.”
“Absolutely,” Farrar concurs, after hearing James’ sentiments. “That happened with me when I came across the words ‘Hoping Machine,’ there was just such a strong element of familiarity that I just hit ‘Record.’ But it’s important to note that it helped tremendously to bring in Jim and Will to revive that same energy Anders and I initially felt when we first built the songs. This was especially the case for me on ‘Hoping Machine’ when Jim mentioned repeating the chorus one more time at the end of the song. I had been conscious about it but never did it until Jim helped make it happen.”
Musically, it’s this sense of collaboration, that makes New Multitudes not just another trite and traditional acoustic regurgitation of back porch blues. On the ragged jangle of opener “Hoping Machine,” the loping lilt of “Fly High,” the floorboard stomp of “No Fear” and the lush warmth and sudden sonic gut-punch of “My Revolutionary Mind,” the cohorts deliver a lesson in discovering a song’s sweet spot. It’s the function and preparedness of each artist’s dogged work ethic gleaned the old-fashioned way, veracious songs, road weary odometers and sweat-stained live shows—all attributes of the man they are honoring. Yet it takes more than just stamina and gumption to make something sound authentic and profound; it’s the quartet’s ability to imbue the sepia-toned essence of the past with risks needed to forge a future.
This is especially apt when one distills the lyrical content down to its core. Guthrie’s words are exquisitely candid, direct and honest. In an age where most music has been regulated to countless ones and zeros and our definition of popular culture grows increasingly vapid, it takes even more diligence and fortitude to emulate what made Guthrie truly unique. Never hiding behind veiled allegory, his lyrics ask for a real and immediate emotional response, and therein lies the secret to their enduring relevance—a reminder that his cynicism towards bankers and politicians still has purchase.
“I think Guthrie was commenting on the fundamental structures of human society, good and bad,” James says. “He was commenting on things that will always be part of the human experience, therefore his comments will always be fresh and relevant. He had the vision to see beyond any one point in time. He saw humanity in its place, in all the time—all the evils, all the beauty, all the possibility. But beyond that somehow it seems like he always saw the truth.”
“Guthrie’s lyrics are an incredibly topical view through the present-day lens,” adds Johnson, “but I think another thing I learned in doing this project is that Woody was far from being a one-dimensional thinker or writer, which is reflected in the lyrics and the resulting group of songs.”
When asked about why it was imperative to make the album and add to Guthrie’s already sizable oeuvre, each of the four musicians cited the desire to encourage new generations to delve into the importance of his legacy as a musical touchstone.
“As an outsider it’s vital to add to the opus, which is already pretty huge, because it’s is really just the tip of the iceberg,” says Parker. “Not only is it proof to how timeless and contemporary these lyrics are that they withstood all the treatments we put them through in the course of making this album, but because they are an integral part of not just musical history but American history, as well. I mean one of the songs I chose was typed on the back of a menu from a ship that he worked on during the Second World War while in the merchant marine. It’s more than a song; it’s a piece of history. On one side it was ‘Navy Beans with stewed carrots’ and on the other side were these lyrics. He’s such an interesting character and the archives are such a rich trove it’s kinda hard to put into words what an honor it was to be part of the project.”
“What Anders says is true and that’s reflected in the project’s name New Multitudes,” says Farrar. “Guthrie was the archetype for the traveling bard, who also chose to write songs about social and economic injustice, which now more than ever are subjects that need to be revisited; we figure this album is just a natural extension of the process in many ways.”
James adds, “I think as times rolls on, younger people might not know about Woody so I do think it’s important for every generation to carry the musical torch of discovery and keep passing it down. It’s amazing to think of some kid in the year 3037 being inspired by some Woody Guthrie song just because his favorite band at the time loved a version of that song by their favorite band done 50 years before that and son on and so forth, and that it lives forever.”
As insatiable musical voyagers, these artists somehow manage to synthesize Guthrie’s iconic influence by peeling back all their individual layers to find the harmonic convergence where lyric and song bare their souls to each other speaking nothing the raw-boned truth.
On New Multitudes Farrar, James, Parker and Johnson have mined the lyrical ore of one our country’s bedrocks and emerged with a fresh lode of precious stones. But what makes this session such a rarity in today’s music world is allowing the infectious simplicity of these songs to stand amongst a new generation. In doing so, these artists have paid the greatest compliment to Guthrie and the collaborative spirit.