Over the course of dozens of hours spent combing through more than 3,000 Woody Guthrie lyrics collected in upstate New York, the thing that Jay Farrar kept discovering was California.
“I found myself not aware of the California connection at the time I was going through and looking at those lyrics,” Farrar said of his exploration of the Guthrie archives that resulted in New Multitudes, his new album with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. “I guess that was an especially creative time for him, and I was drawn to the things he was thinking about at that time.”
Both songwriters said inspiration came easily during their separate trips to look through the collection of nearly every notebook, sketch pad and scrawl-covered napkin Guthrie produced during his 55 years that made him one of America’s most legendary folk singers.
Known famously for his workers’ rights and protest songs, the California-specific material on New Multitudes presents a more fragile, lonely side of Guthrie, who married and divorced his third wife and saw his health falter during his California stints in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Careless Reckless Love,” “My Revolutionary Mind” and “Talking Empty Bed Blues” are among the songs where Guthrie openly pined for love, while “Hoping Machine,” “Fly High” and “Old L.A.” show him trying to keep an optimistic stance as he moved into what would become his final, difficult years.
“I guess there’s something in Jay that’s attracted to L.A., and he found that in looking through Woody’s lyrics,” said Nora Guthrie, one of eight Guthrie children and the caretaker of the Woody Guthrie foundation and archives. “That’s true of everybody, because you end up finding yourself in looking at those lyrics. ‘Your Smile Cured Me,’ was written in ’52 or ’54 when Woody was dealing with his own sort of skid row, and ‘When I Get Home’ is so heart-wrenching, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time.”
Both of the songs referenced by Nora Guthrie are found on the expanded version of “New Multitudes,” which Rounder Records will release on Feb. 28.
Recorded in 2009 with Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson and Varnaline’s Anders Parker, the album is part of a year-long centennial celebration of Guthrie’s birth that includes tribute concerts in all 50 states and an expanded boxed set release of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Guthrie-derived Mermaid Avenue albums released more than a decade ago.
A small parade of artists have released music from Guthrie lyrics in recent years, running the stylistic gamut from Boston punks the Dropkick Murphys and rocker Lou Reed to jazz artist Jonatha Brooke and Jewish traditionalist group The Klezmatics.
Guthrie said the Farrar/James collaboration made sense to her because the pair opted to carry a more personal side of her father’s story to a new generation, and their country leanings had a direct connection to Woody Guthrie’s recordings.
“I really wanted to hear something that returned to Woody’s roots after working with The Klezmatics,” she said. “Hearing it reminded me of those sounds of guys like Phil Ochs hanging around in the Sixties in the living room. That’s the visual picture I get when I hear it.”
When the quartet convened in a Brooklyn studio to complete the bulk of the record – Farrar had written and recorded some of the material on his own beginning in 2006 before James came on board – the mood was one of exploration and adventure. James took up the bass guitar and considered sticking with it upon returning to My Morning Jacket, Johnson put a musical saw to his spotlight song “Chorine” and Farrar sang in challenging keys and used song structures he’d never have attempted solo or with his main band Son Volt.
“It was a very symbiotic situation and in a way it was like we were all at music camp. We stepped away from our normal situations with our own bands and I liked that we were able to try things out that I wouldn’t have done on my own,” Farrar said of his register-pushing vocal on “Careless Reckless Love” and the repetitive song structure of the title track, which he termed “Walt Whitman-esque.”
Writing and completing New Multitudes had lasting benefits for both men. The experience of working with another writer’s source material made Farrar comfortable enough to embark on a similar journey with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard for 2009’s Jack Kerouac-sourced album One Fast Move And I’m Gone.
For James, the chance to explore a sort of musical wonderland at the Guthrie archives motivated him to be more studious with documenting the stray thoughts and feelings that become the source material for songs.
“What occurred to me was how important it was to capture this stuff, and I’m glad he did so we could look back on what he had to say,” James said. “You might not pay attention to what the voices in your head are telling you, but it’s important to get all that stuff down. His mind was shooting out like a machine gun or cannon and it was amazing to see everything, drawings and doodles and stuff on napkins. It feels like his brain was this constant waterfall of creativity.”