“I was reading this Woody Guthrie biography a few days ago and came across this part where a woman says, ‘Woody hated imitators and people who didn’t do their own thing.’”
Anders Parker is seated in a booth at a Burlington café on a recent Friday afternoon chatting about his latest project, a tribute to the legendary American folk singer. As the lanky songwriter sips a coffee drink, the froth dangles from his mustache above a long, unkempt beard.
“My only strategy was not to think about what I was doing, let it be instinctual. And I’m glad I did,” Parker continues. “So the only thing, really, was to try to make it not sound like Woody.”
If he had lived to see it, July 14, 2012, would be Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. The months leading up to that anniversary promise to be filled with all manner of tributes celebrating the life and art of the folkie icon. Among those is New Multitudes, which will be released on Rounder Records on Tuesday, February 28. The album features 12 previously unrecorded songs taken from the Woody Guthrie Archives and set to original music by Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Burlington’s Anders Parker.
Parker says the project was originally meant to be a Gob Iron record — his own folk-based side project with Farrar. In 2006, when the two were in New York City doing a press junket for that band’s debut record, Death Songs for the Living, Farrar and Parker visited the Woody Guthrie Archives to begin researching the project. He says they spent hours poring over boxes upon boxes crammed with material Guthrie left behind.
“Pretty much everything is original,” Parker says. “So you’re sitting there going through his typed or handwritten [lyrics], or notes, diaries. It was incredible.”
Parker and Farrar wrote and recorded a few tracks separately, then convened the next year to record together. But the project ended up shelved due to “schedules and tours and life and whatever,” as Parker puts it. “So it just sort of sat for a while.”
During that time, Farrar recruited Jim James, who had visited the archives and met Nora Guthrie, Woody’s youngest daughter and de facto guardian of all things Woody. She had played some of Farrar and Parker’s tracks for James. Upon hearing them, he suggested inviting Will Johnson — another friend of Parker’s and a member of Monsters of Folk. That side project also includes James — credited as Yim Yames, as he is on New Multitudes.
“I’ve joked that [the album] started in 2006 and finished in 2010,” says Parker. “But it was probably about two and a half weeks of recording in total.”
Much of New Multitudes was tracked live in Brooklyn at the studio of onetime Vermont resident Mark Spencer, who also plays guitar for the project. Burlington’s Creston Lea, who plays bass in Parker’s band Cloud Badge, also appears on a few tracks. Parker notes that most songs were cut in two or three takes, vocals were generally recorded live, and there were few overdubs.
“We intentionally had a bit of Woody’s vibe: not to put on airs or make it something it’s not,” Parker says.
The album reflects that relaxed approach. Unlike its highly produced Guthrie-related predecessors, Mermaid Avenue, volumes one and two, by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Multitudes is generally spare and straightforward. Most songs center around traditional rock instrumentation and feature little in the way of ornate arrangements.
Though not entirely justified — or fair — comparisons to the Mermaid Avenue sessions are inevitable. For one, Mermaid remains the highest-profile project to mine the archives and set Guthrie’s “lost” writings to new music. There is also the inextricable connection between Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, who cofounded and cofronted the legendary alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, before splitting up and starting Son Volt and Wilco, respectively.
But Multitudes is merely the latest in a long line of projects from a wide variety of artists to take the approach. Songwriter Slaid Cleaves adapted Guthrie lyrics for songs on a 2001 album, Broke Down. Dropkick Murphys gave Guthrie the Celtic punk treatment in 2003. And Woody’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, released an entire record of reimagined Guthrie lyrics on her 2009 children’s album Go Waggaloo. The list goes on.
“Just about every year there is something like this that comes out that you may or may not hear about,” says Parker. New Multitudes was actually scheduled to come out in 2011, but since there was another Guthrie project released last year, Nora Guthrie asked that it be shelved until 2012. It’s unlikely Multitudes will be the last.
“There is just so much material [in the Guthrie Archives] that it could go on for years,” notes Parker.
Sifting through the archives, he says, was overwhelming.
“The sheer volume is intense. I’ve read that [Woody] would show up at friends’ houses to borrow their typewriters and sit and write all day. The continuous explosion of thoughts. He didn’t regulate himself.”
To speed the process, Parker looked for atypical Guthrie writings.
“I was most interested in things that I wouldn’t associate with Woody necessarily. Imagery or ideas, lines that jumped at me as, topically, what you wouldn’t associate with him,” he explains.
“There are lyrics that he wrote that were never recorded, I think, because they were too extreme,” Parker adds. “There were cuss words, or the topics were maybe unsuitable for the time. Or they [were] just so harsh and direct.”
On “VD City,” for example, Johnson sings over a driving rock beat and distorted guitars, “Your eye is too testered to see here / Worse than lepers your skin run with sores / Every window stands full of lost faces / Human wrecks pile the steps and the doors.”
Not exactly “This Land Is Your Land,” eh?
“The breadth is wider than I thought,” says Parker of Guthrie’s writings. “There are darker subjects, writing about addiction and prostitution and venereal disease. And there are the sappy love songs. Some kind of gangster tunes. In that way, he was a real folk musician. He wrote about everything.”
Guthrie’s importance to the canon of American folk songwriting can’t be overstated — though critics will undoubtedly try in the months to come.
“Pete Townshend had a funny line,” says Parker. “Someone once asked him how Dylan affected him. And he said, ‘That’s like asking how I was affected by being born.’”
Townshend wasn’t far off the mark. Any musicologist will tell you that most branches of modern American songwriting eventually connect with Woody Guthrie.
“You don’t have to go back very far to get to Guthrie,” Parker says. “You get to Bob Dylan and you find Guthrie. Even if you don’t know who he is, you listen to people who are influenced by him by one or two degrees of separation. He’s one of the sources of the language.”
"New Multitudes" by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames is out now on Rounder Records.