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Review: Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie

Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie
[429 Records (2011)]

In anticipation of the 2012 centennial celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth, Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter) has once again conceived of a project based on the unpublished words and writings of her father. This isn’t the first album based on Guthrie’s unknown writings. Besides the most well-known Mermaid Avenue albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco, there have been others by Jonatha Brooke and The Klezmatics. Nora had the wise idea of asking Grammy-winning bassist Rob Wasserman, known for the inventiveness and consistency of his work, to collaborate with a range of artists on this project, one which seems to have gone through a ten year gestation period. In fact, two of the participants, namely Chris Whitley and Studs Terkel, have since died, in 2005 and in 2008, respectively.

The contributing artists are a reputable but disparate bunch that includes Tom Morello, Kurt Elling, Nellie McKay, and Van Dyke Parks, whose opening track is an instrumental called “A Note of Hope.” The tracks that mix spoken word with music are among the most effective. Besides the aforementioned Studs Terkel (“I Heard a Man Talking”), the others are by Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka (“There’s a Feeling in Music”), and Ani DiFranco (a half spoken/half sung track called “Voice”). One could argue whether Lou Reed and Michael Franti’s contributions qualify as singing or narration. The album ends with Jackson Browne’s “You Know the Night,” a nearly 15 minute song based on a 30-page notebook entry that recalls the night Woody met Marjorie Mazia, his second wife. The four-minute radio edit version available on the Woody Guthrie Web site would have served the consumer well had it been added as a bonus track. Not all of these songs are topical but those that are, such as Madeleine Peyroux’s “Wild Card in the Hole,” still ring true with timely lyrics such as “Times are getting hard, folks/they might get harder still/no matter who wins office in that big house on the hill.” Wasserman’s bass serves as the album’s unifying element.

—Paul-Emile Comeau (Comeauville, NS, Canada)

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