So here’s how it happened: I was sitting in the dark, with my four-year-old son in my lap, both of us watching Elizabeth Mitchell explain to a packed auditorium that her next record would be an album of Woody Guthrie songs, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. And then she launched into “Bling Blang,” and I heard a room full of people start to sing along, and it struck something in me.
Guthrie’s is a name most of us know by heart, along with at least a few of his songs, but his music has been consigned to the sepia-toned dustbin of “traditional folk” for a long time now — a strummy ghetto occupied mainly by first-year guitar students and children’s musicians. I’ve written occasionally about how it’s generally regarded as more acceptable for kids’ entertainers to cover these songs, and I think at least a little of it has to do with the way they’re widely regarded as being simple and sort of corny. In a way, I’m glad for that, because it gives our children a really wonderful introduction to music; on the other hand, it’s unfortunate that our familiarity with our musical heritage has bred this combination of distance and contempt. The songs are alive — they’re still every bit as vibrant as they’ve ever been.
All that hit home for me in that auditorium. Elizabeth Mitchell wasn’t just singing a simple song, she was maintaining a tradition — revisiting a memory we share, keeping it alive. Strengthening a thread that binds us as Americans — as humans — by drawing us back into the fabric of our cultural collective. She breathed new life into an old song, one with even deeper roots, and we breathed with her, circle unbroken.
It filled me up, and it gave me an idea. After the show, in the hallway outside the auditorium, I met up with my pal Bill Childs and started talking real fast about how cool it would be to put together another Woody Guthrie tribute record. Bill, who owns Spare the Rock Records in addition to co-hosting the Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child radio show with his kids, agreed completely, with the proviso that I take the lead when it came to wrangling artists, tracks, and legal paperwork.
That was May 5. The morning of May 7, I started sending emails to our wish list of performers, and by that afternoon, we already had two files in hand — a really beautiful illustration of complicated modern technology working in service of music whose enduring power has a lot to do with its simplicity. Woody’s music was built low to the ground, without a lot of moving parts — the kind of thing you can take outside in the rain without worrying about it getting damaged.
That was the aesthetic we pursued for the album that Bill titled Keep Hoping Machine Running (an item from this terrific list of New Year’s resolutions penned by Guthrie): Simple. Direct. Not perfect, and not always pretty, but true. During an email discussion about the project, Dean Jones shared his perspective on Woody’s approach: “Laugh and make mistakes. Drink whiskey.” That last part was optional, but we tried to preserve the overall spirit as we went along.
I’m a little stunned by how quickly it all came together, thrilled with the results, and humbled by how willingly the artists involved donated their time and creativity. The whole thing just worked, right down to the Twitter exchange where Matthew Ryan announced his involvement, prompting an artist named Adam Houston to volunteer his painting of Woody Guthrie for the cover. (It’s perfect, don’t you think?)
I’m also really excited for you to hear Keep Hoping Machine Running: Songs of Woody Guthrie. (All net proceeds from sales will benefit the Woody Guthrie Foundation.) The album isn’t due for release until July 31, but we’ll be previewing a few things before then, and in the meantime, I’m proud to announce the complete track listing:
David Wilcox, 1927 Talking Dustbowl Blues
Tito Uquillas, Chisholm Trail
Fiona Fraser-Gross, Union Maid
The Okee Dokee Brothers, Do Re Mi
Frances England, Bling Blang
Brady Rymer, Mail Myself to You
Christina Marrs, Ramblin’ ‘Round
Henning Ohlenbusch, Little Black Train
Oran Etkin and Timbalooloo, John Henry
Dog on Fleas featuring Miss Rene Bailey, This Land Is Your Land
Little Miss Ann, Swimmy Swim
Caspar Babypants, Grassy Grass Grass
Matthew Ryan, Little Darling
Rachel Loshak, Go Tell Aunt Rhody
Sandra Velasquez, Deportee
The Deedle Deedle Dees featuring Roy Nathanson, Mean Talkin’ Blues
Papa Crow, Along in the Sun and the Rain
Ratboy Jr., Why Oh Why
Charlie Hope, Goodnight Little Arlo (Goodnight Little Darlin’)
Alastair Moock, So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh