Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woodie Guthrie

Various Artists

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Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woodie Guthrie Review

by Mark Deming

While Woody Guthrie died in 1967, his career as a songwriter has been remarkably lively since 1998, when Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and one of the directors of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, encouraged Billy Bragg and members of Wilco to look through Woody's prolific unpublished writings and set them to music. Mermaid Avenue, the album Bragg and Wilco recorded of "new" Woody Guthrie songs, brought the great songwriter's work to a new audience, but Nora has also granted several other musicians access to her father's writings, including the Klezmatics, Corey Harris, and Jonatha Brooke, and she subsequently teamed up with noted bassist and composer Rob Wasserman for a special project. Wasserman has recorded several albums in collaboration with a variety of pop, rock, and jazz artists, and on Note of Hope, he presents 12 new compositions created with different artists using Guthrie's words as their foundation and Wasserman's fluid bass as the musical constant. Wasserman's eclectic spirit runs free on this collection, and his musical partners include proto-punk icon Lou Reed, hipster jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, Laurel Canyon folk-rocker Jackson Browne, conscious hip-hop MC Michael Franti, rabble-rousing guitarist and singer Tom Morello, and folk legend (and one of Woody's running buddies) Pete Seeger. Wasserman clearly wanted to use Note of Hope as a showcase for the flexibility of Guthrie's lyrical voice, and it's true that his writings are similarly effective no matter what the musical backdrops may be, but it's just as true that the rhythmic cadences and political, emotional, and romantic obsessions of Guthrie's writings dominate these songs more than the music, and two of the best tracks ("I Heard a Man Talking" by Studs Terkel and "There's a Feeling in Music" by Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka) essentially use readings of Guthrie's essays as accompaniment to music rather than marrying them into proper songs. While Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco, Chris Whitley, and Seeger & Trischka all handle emotional material with strength and taste, Elling and Morello both seriously overplay their selections, and at nearly 15 minutes, Jackson Browne's "You Know the Night" could have used some judicious editing. However, if Guthrie's words ultimately win out over the music of Note of Hope, that's as it should be, and Wasserman's bass work is beautiful while serving the songs well, and his many accompanists handle this music with élan. Note of Hope was clearly a project long in the works (Whitley died in 2005 and Terkel passed in 2008), and the care that went into it is clear; while the final product is uneven, the love that went into it is never in doubt, and even the weakest tracks remind us what a special and singular artist Woody Guthrie was, and that's exactly what an album like this should do.

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