Woodeye: Songs of Woody Guthrie

Joel Rafael

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Woodeye: Songs of Woody Guthrie Review

by William Ruhlmann

Singer Joel Rafael, who has performed at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, OK, clearly is a Guthrie scholar, a point he reinforces by putting a photograph on the cover of the CD booklet for Woodeye of a collection of Guthrie books, LPs, and other CDs. He also makes a point of saying in his brief liner notes that he has studied different recordings of Guthrie's songs to make "a genuine effort to present his lyrics as accurately as possible," a task he acknowledges being complicated somewhat by Guthrie's own tendency to improvise and forget. Not surprisingly, Rafael's renditions of Guthrie's songs are much in the style that Guthrie and his earlier followers performed them. In fact, with his husky voice, Rafael sounds like Ramblin' Jack Elliott or the young Bob Dylan trying to sound like Guthrie. The arrangements he and his acoustic string band (Rafael on rhythm guitar, Carl Johnson on lead guitar, Jamaica Rafael on violin, Dan Rothchild on bass, Jeff Berkley on percussion) work up are in an authentic folk/country style, augmented now and then by such sympathetic guests as Van Dyke Parks, Ellis Paul, and Jennifer Warnes. Rafael mixes familiar Guthrie tunes with some obscure ones. Among the latter, the real find is "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son," an anti-lynching song based on a true story from Oklahoma. Rafael is one of several songwriters who have been given access to the trove of Guthrie lyrics without music, and he has done a setting of a 1950 work called "Dance a Little Longer" that turns out to be a good song sounding like yet another husky voiced folksinger, John Prine. Rafael's own discursive "Talking Oklahoma Hills" makes for a rambling closer, but by the end he is to be forgiven for the indulgence, having long since proved his affinity for the subject of this tribute album.

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