No American songwriter has produced a more malleable, sing-able and shareable body of work than Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Decades after his death, his archives continue to yield sweet, unfinished fruit for the likes of Jay Farrar, Billy Bragg and the Klezmatics (for starters) and his songs continue to be reinterpreted in contexts he of the boundless imagination could never have imagined.
Right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing a Woody Guthrie song - and feeling glad to be alive to do it.
On the eve of the centennial of his birth, I've put together a list of 14 covers of Woody's songs, focusing on lesser-known or surprising interpretations. Everyone knows (or should know) Seeger, Springsteen, Dylan, Arlo, Ramblin' Jack, Wilco and Bragg's covers. But Slaid Cleaves? Flatt and Scruggs? Karen Dalton? Hear and see in the rundown below - and happy birthday, Woody.
1. Slaid Cleaves - "This Morning I Was Born Again" Woody was steeped in hillbilly country music, and that means he knew gospel music -- and how powerful a secular subversion of it can be. As does contemporary troubadour Slaid Cleaves.
2. Ry Cooder - "Vigilante Man" Cooder has recorded a number of Guthrie songs, but here, with head wrapped like an East LA hustler, he cuts into one of the darkest songs in the English language.
3. Karen Dalton - "Pastures of Plenty" The Greenwich Village contemporary of young Dylan finds something totally uncanny in one of Guthrie's most spiritual - because it's soaked in the land - songs.
4. Bob Dylan - "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" Not a cover, but a channeling, and Dylan's first composition to hint at total genius, written at the age of 22.
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