Woody Guthrie / Arlo Guthrie / Guthrie Family

Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs

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Woody Guthrie's children's songs were among his most popular efforts during his lifetime, and tunes such as "Riding in My Car" and "Put Your Finger in the Air" have gone on to become standards sung by many parents and children who have no idea that he wrote them. Guthrie had eight children of his own, of whom three survived as adults in the early 1990s, each with children of their own: Arlo Guthrie, Joady Guthrie, and Nora Guthrie Rotante. In 1991, they decided to record an album on which they and their children would overdub their vocals onto Woody Guthrie's original recordings. As has proven true of such predecessors as Hank Williams, Jr., and Natalie Cole, they seem not to have realized how ghoulish a prospect many people would find this, but they had another problem. As Rotante reveals in her liner notes, they don't seem to have listened to Woody Guthrie's 1940s recordings beforehand. Guthrie was an untutored musician and a solo performer for much of his career; he was not much concerned with such niceties as pitch and keeping strict time. Even as a songwriter, he would put more beats in one measure than in another. And his children's songs, inspired by his daughter Cathy Ann Guthrie (who died in childhood), were even more formless than usual, which is part of their charm; they often sound like songs made up by a child. None of this, however, facilitates conventional accompaniment. When the Guthries figured this out, they had to re-think the project, and they have made an obvious choice: most of the time, they simply leave Woody Guthrie out completely. Of the 20 songs on this disc, Woody Guthrie does not appear at all on 11 of them. On three others, "Riding in My Car," "Merry-Go-Round," and "Sleep Eye," the Guthries make little or no attempt to accompany him; he appears alone on the first, endures some minor instrumental backup on the second, and is followed by a brief coda from the family on the third. That leaves only six songs on which the Guthries actually try to sing along to their progenitor's existing vocal tracks, but these are the least satisfying on the album, as various singers and musicians speed up or slow down to accommodate the songwriter, no doubt also editing the old vocals to fit a little better into the folk-rock arrangements. Guthrie, who rarely worked with more than a couple of instruments, sounds odd seeming to sing over bass, drums, and keyboards, even when his vocal has been jiggered into place and is more or less on the beat. Oddly enough, the real joy of the album comes on the non-Woody tracks, when Rotante, a non-performer with an excellent voice, Arlo Guthrie, and the various children sing the songs in their own way. The songs themselves, of course, remain among the best children's material ever written, and though flawed, this disc may help to give them new life.

Track Listing

Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:50
2 3:04
3 1:53
4 2:13
5 1:29
6 2:17
7 2:38
8 2:26
9 1:53
10 2:14
11 1:35
12 1:45
13 2:26
14 1:48
15 2:44
16 2:38
17 1:14
18 2:34
19 3:04
20 3:26
blue highlight denotes track pick