New Multitudes: Woody Guthrie’s memory lives on through a supergroup quartet

In honor of this month’s PBS premiere of Ken Burns’ amazing new documentary series, “The Dust Bowl”, featuring the music of Woody Guthrie, I give you this year in the life of New Multitudes.

A supergroup of sorts, yet leaving any ego behind, New Multitudes is a quartet formed to honor and record unreleased songs of Woody Guthrie on this, the centennial year of his birth.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t just the voice of a generation– he was the voice of several generations, and his legacy is destined to live on forever. Known reverently as America’s premier folk singer, Guthrie was the voice of the people, the voice of protest and a voice of peace. He sang for children, for the workers, for the underdog, and always against injustice. One of the most important storytellers of all time, he is not only known for his original songs, but also for keeping traditional tunes alive and relevant in our nation’s historical repertoire.

It is within this history of retelling the tales of others that the recent New Multitudes record came to be. Paying homage to Woody, and released as a tribute to the centennial anniversary of his birth, four of America’s most earnest troubadours have united to honor Guthrie by recording an album of his previously unreleased songs and taking those tunes on the road for a brief American tour.

First conceived by Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Gob Iron) back in 1995 as a potential collaboration between him and Billy Bragg, the idea fell through and eventually his old bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, would pursue the project with Bragg instead. Farrar would eventually return to the project, enlisting Anders Parker (his band mate in Gob Iron) and later Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Will Johnson (of Centromatic and South San Gabriel). Invited by Woody’s granddaughter, Nora Guthrie, Farrar and company were invited to the Woody Guthrie archives in New York City and rummaged through an overwhelming and well-organized file of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs.

Recording the songs over an extensive time frame, the four participants released New Multitudes on February 28 of this year on Rounder Records. Each member assumes the position of lead vocalist for three tracks each, alternating in sequence, and with each of the members joining in at the harmonies and backing instrumentation. In spring 2012, the band did a small big city tour to showcase the record with each member adding some of their own material to the each show’s set list.

The following interviews with Will Johnson and Jay Farrar were conducted separately, over the phone, and just a few days into the tour. Accompanying the interview are exclusive photos and videos from the band’s shows in Boston and at the Newport Folk Festival. Enjoy….

An interview with Will Johnson:

Nolan: Hey Will, how are you?

Will: Hey Nolan. I’m doing okay. I appreciate your patience in doing this and keeping the volley going. This might be a record. This might be one for the books in trying to organize an interview.

I know you’re busy and I’m just glad we get to talk. Where are you guys now?

We’re in Portland right now. We got in about midnight last night.

How have the shows gone so far?

It’s just been a ton of fun. We only have 2 under our belt and it’s been fun trying to assemble it and its been quick. We’ve had to do soundchecks basically as full-set run-thru rehearsal to make sure we have all our ducks in order. But I’m around some really great folks and just as I said when I was doing the Monsters of Folk tour, I have the best seat in the house [as the drummer]. This is a pretty good band and I feel very lucky to be part of it.

Is it just the four of you on stage?

Yes, it is.

Let’s start with the beginnings of this project. Who approached who and who joined on in time?

I guess going back to 1995-1996, Jay [Farrar] was in contact with Nora Guthrie [Woody’s granddaughter] and the idea was to work with Billy Bragg on some Woody Guthrie recordings. I guess the timing didn’t work out. I don’t exactly know the details, but it didn’t happen. But Jay attained to eventually get around to that on his terms. Toss that forward to 2005 and 2006, I guess he and Anders had Gob Iron and they went to the archives and started tracking with Nora’s blessing to put music to these lost and unrecorded Woody lyrics. That gained a little steam. Then in 2008-2009, Jim went by the archives and heard some of those recordings just to say he liked the songs that he heard. Then Jay extended the invitation to Jim and soon after they discussed it, they extended it to me. Then it started to snowball. Jim and I went to New York and cut our songs and got together for a followup session about a year later in March of 2010. So this record came from various corners of the universe in a way—recording sessions and different locations. But the cool thing is that we’ve all known each other for years and years and years through touring and recording and mutual admiration. I guess I go back to 1998 with Jay and Anders and Jim and I have known each other for years of course. It takes awhile to tell that story because it took that long to make the record.

Was everyone in the studio at once or did you guys do it in pairs?

Jay and Anders had the bulk of their tracks done before Jim and I came along. And they had various musicians record with them. The session that took place in ’09 shortly after I was invited involved all four of us. We were at the studio in Brooklyn for a week and we cut Jim’s three songs and we cut my three songs and we all played all over theirs. The session that took place in 2010 was mainly to get mine and Jim’s background vocals on Jay and Anders songs so that there’s a continuous run of fingerprints—everyone’s fingerprints are on all the recordings.

Did you get to go to the archives?

I still have not got to go. The way I received my choices and selections and song choices was from Jay, who had been to the archive several times. He sent me photocopies of 16 to 18 pages of Woody’s writings and scribbles and metered song lyrics… things like that. I went through those on my own time, but I still have to get to the archives.

Where is the Guthrie archive?

It’s in Manhattan as far as I know.

Is it open to the public or do you have to be specially invited?

I guess I’ll find out. I think people have to be in touch with Nora.

What has her roll been in this project?

I hope she goes to the New York show.

So you recorded for a week and just started practicing for the shows this past week?

That’s right. We went down to St. Louis and had three practice days at Jay’s studio doing the best we could to work out a set.

Does the song each person sings on the record reflect the song that they individually decided on to do, or was it a united effort?

I would say so. Speaking from my own experience, I got that mailer from Jay sand spread those pages out on the couch and just decided to find the things that came most naturally. It sounds a little cryptic but I started cutting demos within twenty minutes of opening the mailer. As far as the set we’re going to go straight through and then a mini second set where we do a solo song a piece and a solo song with the full band backing. It’s a full night of music for sure, but I think going in we wanted to perform every bit of the record for sure.

What did Woody Guthrie mean to you and did that view change in anyway with you participating in this project and recording his unrecorded songs?

It’s one of the most humbling feelings I’ve ever experienced. I feel I’m repeating myself with this, but I feel that it is truly one of the most highest honors that I could have ever experienced, either artistically, or in life. Woody Guthrie was always important to me as a kid, thanks to my folks and my grandparents and adults around me. By 1997, I really started exploring deeper into how complex and encompassing he was on all life levels. Just the breadth of his pallet became apparent to me. That Joe Klein biography sticks out to me as an important stage in me learning more about Woody and just how many people he affected. Once I read that book I started to look for more recordings. I guess it didn’t hurt that I was living with a semi-Woody obsessed roommate. So it was always around the house. We actually had a record player in the bathroom and whenever you flipped on the light switch it activated the record player. So, if we were taking a shower, the record player would go and there were a couple of Woody records that were on that record player for the better part of a year, which is great. Use the rest room, brush your teeth and you’d always hear Woody. That was such an important part of my life where I chose to dive in and wanted to learn more about this person.

I know that you and Jim are roadwarriors. Do you see an affinity with Woody Guthrie and that aspect of bringing his music on the road while rambling around the country?

Yeah, Jim and I met just from that sort of setting. It was the Jacket’s first U.S. tour and a good friend of mine was promoting the show in Austin. My friend had some really keen insight and is really responsible for forging the friendship and our friendship’s to flourish. He kind of insisted that South San Gabriel play that show with My Morning Jacket. And we played that show and friendships were forged immediately. Jim and I would send recordings to each other and we did tours in Europe and the US. That friendship flourished into the Monsters of Folk tour and this project as well.

When you approached Woody’s unreleased songs, to what degree did you try to consider how Woody would sing the song versus giving the song your own treatment?

That’s a really good question. On one song [“No Fear”], I took into account how Woody would have sang it and I could hear his voice so clearly when I read those words. Such simple lyrics and if you see the page, it’s scrawled out, it’s later in his life and his faculties were…um… his handwriting was a little shakey, and that makes reading those lyrics all the more intense. There’s still this fire, despite the condition he was in, but he was struggling with his handwriting. That song I did in fact hear his voice and I always kind of thought that Woody was one of the original punk rockers and when those lyrics–to my eyes, and eventually my ears– were very punk rock. Looking death straight in the eye and not being afraid of it. With the other two songs, I tried not to bring in too many outside influences and tried to let the lyrics guide me and let it unfold in a way that felt most natural. I thought it would be incredibly daunting, but I found the songs came very naturally and quick and I think that’s a testament to his voice and his songwriting.

An Interview with Jay Farrar

JF: Thanks for being flexible and thanks for your patience.

NG: No Problem. So are the shows going well so far?

JF: Yeah, really well. Even the first show. There’s always a first show aura I guess and it felt like we’d already been doing it for a while, so it’s going well.

Do you wanna give a brief history as to the beginnings of this project. I know you spearheaded it because you did stuff awhile back.

Yeah the idea of working with Woody Guthrie goes back to 1995-1996 when a request came through the record company. Son Volt was on Warner Brothers then and the idea was to work with unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics and to work with Billy Bragg. That didn’t happen, but the idea started then. Then in 2006, I approached Nora Guthrie and she said sure. At that point we started going into the Woody Guthrie archives.

So as far as the Billy Bragg thing, did Jeff Tweedy [former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo] just take and run with that?

I don’t know, but frankly I don’t really care which is important. This project finally came to fruition and it’s a great experience working with Will, Jim and Anders.

So you did some songs before this band got together?

That’s right. That’s reflected in the bonus deluxe version of the New Multitudes record, which has a lot of extra songs. Those were songs that Anders Parker and I got a head start on. We started recording, sometimes together and sometimes individually in 2006 and we started the process. Since the beginning this has been a side project and we just did what we could. Probably for the best, there was never any record company involved. The best example of that is that I once traded a guitar to make a recording situation happen. It’s always been an ad hoc situation to make this happen.

How did you come about meeting Nora Guthrie?

We met her while visiting the archives. She’s been supportive all along.

Tell me a little bit about the archives. Do you have to be invited there or can anyone go?

That’s a good question. I was invited because I approached Nora about doing a project with Woody Guthrie lyrics and I’m not sure what she thinks about anyone stopping by, but…. At the time in was located in upper Manhattan and it just occupied just a few relatively small rooms, but there was a vast amount of Woody Guthrie stuff there. It was essentially a repository of all things Woody and lyrics that had never been put to music. Originally I started with the letter “A” with the intention of making it all the way to the letter “Z”, but after about two days, I realized I was only on the letter “C” and wasn’t going to make it and started picking letters arbitrarily that I thought might be good like the letter “S”.

So everything is that well organized?

It is. It’s organized by pre-existing lyrics and then there are journals, which Woody often engaged in more of a free-form style of writing. Sometimes it was a stream of consciousness style, like in the song “Hoping Machine” which reflects Woody’s charms.

What was the craziest thing you found in the archive?

There are too many to mention, but when we found the song “Hoping Machine”, it was just in the middle of his journals where he would be writing routine stuff like “I woke up and drank coffee” and right after that he would launch into something philosophical, along the lines of  “Hoping Machine” which struck me to be a song where he’s talking about music as a language… where the mind which travels back to the laws of time and space.

Were all of these songs from a similar time period, or do you even know?

I started out concentrating Woody’s work in the 1940’s. That particularly interested me because it was a period where his guitar said “This Machine Kills Fascists”. And it was also a period where Woody went in and out of St. Louis, which is where I’m from. I think that “Hoping Machine” comes from the period. But, as Nora pointed out, most of the work that we chose was from a later period, maybe in the 1950’s when he was in California.

What did Woody mean to you before and has that perspective changed now that you’ve recorded his songs and even discovered his unreleased works?

I think going into the project I always thought that Woody was the first guy who though music could change the world. He was essentially the archetype. You can draw a flowchart with people that Woody Guthrie influenced along the way. But I think just visiting the archives it was amazing how prolific he was at creating. I think his first profession was a sign painter.

When you went into these songs, what part of you was conscious of giving the songs your own treatment versus the was Woody would have played them?

We didn’t really go into the writing or recording project with any game plan. We just wanted it to evolve and would reflect each of the various backgrounds that each of us bring to the background.

Would you say you wanted the songs to sound like how Woody imagined them, or did you try and do your own take on things?

There was never any conscious thought about how Woody would have sang it. But I think there are instances where we’re gelling enough to sound like Woody would have done it.