Arts

‘New Multitudes’ honors unpublished Woody Guthrie

Anna Webber

From left: Will Johnson, Jay Farrar, Yim Yames, and Anders Parker have teamed up for a project honoring Woody Guthrie.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, tribute concerts marking the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth are officially planned this year in all 50 states. That fact alone may confirm the iconic status of this leftist folk troubadour, who died in 1967. But it doesn’t make his legacy resonate quite like this month’s tiny bicoastal tour by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, which has traveled from California to the New York Island to close Friday at the Paradise Rock Club.

Though they had never played together as a foursome, these Americana/alt-country professionals in their 30s and 40s linked up to share composition and performance duties on new songs set to Guthrie’s previously unpublished words. The recently released “New Multitudes’’ CD (which also comes in a deluxe double-CD edition) collects the results, which were fashioned from some 2,400 jottings in the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, overseen by Woody’s daughter, Nora.

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“I don’t know if I’d even call them songs,’’ said Yames, describing the archival material. “I mean, some of them were songs, some of them were poems, some of them were thoughts.’’

Yim Yames is the stage name of Jim James, leader of My Morning Jacket and one of the two most accomplished members of the foursome. Yames may have chosen to use his longstanding sobriquet - a joshing nickname bestowed by a cousin - so as not to hog top alphabetical billing with the other accomplished member, Jay Farrar, co-leader of 1990s alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo and founder of a splinter offshoot, Son Volt. Or he may have chosen bottom billing to signal his late arrival to the project, after an intimate visit to the archives.

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“Nora played me a song that Jay and Anders had been working on, the song ‘Hoping Machine,’ ’’ said Yames in his calm Kentucky drawl. “And I just kind of e-mailed Jay, just to tell him how much I liked the song, just sort of a casual e-mail. Then he ended up e-mailing me back and invited me to be a part of the project.’’

That project has now become the seventh critically lauded posthumous collaboration CD culled from the archives since 1998. And that doesn’t include assorted one-off wonders like “Shipping Up to Boston,’’ a 2005 Guthrie co-composition by the Dropkick Murphys that has become a sports-arena favorite and million-seller on iTunes.

“I feel like [Guthrie’s] life was constructed to make him this kind of somehow supremely intellectual but really easy-to-understand poet, for everybody,’’ Yames said. “Anybody could understand these profound things that he was saying because he was just a normal person in a lot of ways. But somehow he knew how to vocalize these things that most people feel . . . I just think he knew how to speak to the ages.’’

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At the very least, Nora’s sensibilities for picking collaborators are as daring and inspired as her father’s prolific output. After Billy Bragg and Wilco kicked off the serendipitous project with two “Mermaid Avenue’’ folk-rock albums, Nora drew from as wide a range as the concept of American folk can stretch. In a sense, “New Multitudes’’ brings the project full circle with its rough-hewn vocals, bittersweet tunes, and rootsy guitars.

But it also offers a telling contrast with the equally folksy “Mermaid Avenue’’ discs. As it so happens, Wilco is the other splinter group from Uncle Tupelo, and the folk-rock that Wilco and Bragg fashioned honors the coy self-effacement that Guthrie made a first principle, deferring always to his erstwhile simplicity, his oneness with the multitudes. “New Multitudes’’ lays that ruse bare, with many of its songs shaded by the dark loneliness that Guthrie surely felt, but that he always countered in performances with “aw-shucks’’ humor and chin-up shows of solidarity.

Singer-songwriters, however, often focus on their own pain first, and the Yames and Farrar tracks, in particular, color the lyrics with melancholy. Compare, for example, Yames’s downcast “My Revolutionary Mind’’ to Tom Morello’s jaunty take on the same lyric on the last collaborative Guthrie project, Rob Wasserman’s excellent jazz-and-poetry collection “Note of Hope.’’

“I was falling in love at the time,’’ says Yames, “and the words were really resonating about the person I was falling in love with. It made a lot of sense to me.’’ Likewise, “Talking Empty Bed Blues’’ spoke to Yames about his recovery from a major injury.

Guthrie wrote in an ideological age of mass movements - Communism and fascism, mobilization for war, and the shared disruption of the Depression - but at a time when any joint action by all 50 states seems noteworthy, his ongoing gift to the multitudes is perhaps even more precious than ever.

Franklin Soults can be reached at fsoults@gmail.com.
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