Arlo Guthrie

Hard Travelin'

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Filmmaker Jim Brown's 1984 documentary Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin' tells the story of the legendary folksinger by having his son, Arlo Guthrie, retrace some of his journeys, encountering along the way people who knew him or were influenced by him. This soundtrack album might have been called Arlo Guthrie and Friends Sing Woody Guthrie, since that's what happens, as Arlo Guthrie teams up with a series of performers including Rose Maddox, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hoyt Axton, Bill Murlin, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez to sing his father's songs. The performances are loose and casual, to the point that, on track after track, it is apparent that the performers have not rehearsed or consulted a lyric sheet. Rather, Brown captured off-the-cuff, first-take versions, as if Arlo Guthrie had begun each session by asking, "Remember this one?," and then he and the other performer simply took a whack at it as best they could. Not surprisingly, the tracks are punctuated with such asides as "That's all I can remember" (Axton) and "Let me think here" (Seeger), as the participants struggle to call to mind the words to the songs they've been asked to sing. There are exceptions: Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert's duet on "Pastures of Plenty" makes it sound like the song is part of their regular repertoire, and Joan Baez turns in a polished performance of "Lonesome Valley." But most of the time, the singers are winging it, and that works better on film than on record. The album concludes with Woody Guthrie's recording of "This Land Is Your Land," overdubbed by Arlo Guthrie to sing with his father. It's amazing how often sons and daughters of famous singers are willing to engage in these sorts of ghoulish duets, seemingly without realizing how creepy they are. Unlike Hank Williams, Jr. or Natalie Cole, however, Arlo Guthrie can offer a good reason for this one: there are additional verses to "This Land Is Your Land" that his father never recorded, and by this means he is able to add them in. It's still creepy, though.

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