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Channeling Woody

Daughter Nora tabs Wasserman for next Guthrie project


He's a genuine folk hero, a national treasure. His songs are part of the American landscape. But there's more to Woody Guthrie than just his protest songs and his authorship of the folkies' national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." Digging through the Woody Guthrie archives on 57th Street in New York City, daughter Nora Guthrie discovered a huge body of work that had been sitting undisturbed for the last 40 years that reveals a side of the artist never been seen before. Impressed with the beauty and timelessness of Guthrie's words, Nora was determined to give the artifacts new life through music. Her first project enlisted the help of Billy Bragg and Wilco. Mermaid Avenue, volumes I and II, as well as the DVD documenting the process, Man In The Sand, exposed a new audience to Guthrie's work.

Although the project was highly successful, Nora chose a different direction for her next archive project, enlisting the help of former David Grisman/Lou Reed/Ratdog bassist Rob Wasserman. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame board of directors, she saw Wasserman play on the Hall's tribute to Robert Johnson some five years ago.

"She just came up to me, I had never met her, and said she was familiar with me via what I'd done with Lou Reed," Wassserman says.

Wasserman had been away from the folk scene since his teens, but came full circle with the Guthrie project. "Ironically, when I was 16 I read Bound For Glory. That's when I played a little guitar and was hitching everywhere and thought he was the greatest," the bassist says. "Woody Guthrie was my hero at the time, and it's so weird, because here I am doing this project, many years later, using his words."

While the Wilco/Bragg project was given lyrics to set to music, Wasserman's project is using pieces of Guthrie's writing Nora describes as "poetry and diary entries written in prose style" that she has picked and given to Wasserman. "She had the idea of me with the upright bass with voices, different people singing unpublished words from journals, diaries, sketches, sketch pads, Woody Guthrie sitting in cafes and just sort of writing about life." Those writings were poems or incomplete little stories, Wasserman explained. "I should say, they're not incomplete, but they never were intended to be songs, so it's a little more complicated."

In an '01 interview with for the release of the Man In the Sand DVD, Guthrie said that she wanted to use "one instrument and one band, but with different artists doing the vocals so that there's continuity." Her idea is to use only about 10 people in a process she compares to recording improvisational jazz. So far the project has recorded Ani Di Franco, Spearhead's Michael Franti, Lou Reed, Chris Whitley, DJ Logic and Studs Terkel.

Some may wonder why the project isn't more of a family affair — where is son Arlo and granddaughter Sarah Lee? "We're trying right now not to be too obvious with our choices," Wasserman says. "We're trying to reach people who haven't necessarily been associated with Woody. But I'm not saying that they all won't end up on it."

Those who have ended up on it are presenting Woody in way that Guthrie-ites may not recognize.

Franti's take on Guthrie's "Union Love Juice" sounds like contemporary rap. And even though a Studs Terkel spoken word performance initially sounded like the World War II era it was set in, Wasserman and company threw in a few changes that altered it drastically. "We used the scratching of DJ Logic and me bowing behind him, so it sort of takes it into some new territory that way sonically. It's just all over the place, but the subjects are quite relevant."

The project is still a work in progress, in it's fourth year. But since quitting Ratdog a couple of years ago and cutting back on his solo touring, Wasserman has more time to work on the project. "I needed to take the plunge out of something that was just doing the same thing over and over and not pushing myself. Any given week, I don't know who I'm gonna play with next. It's always some new persons. There's no security in that at all, but it keeps you fresh."

The Spirit Of Guthrie tour with Rob Wasserman, Vince Herman, Jim Page and Theresa Andersson plays the Neighborhood Theatre Thursday, March 31, at 8pm. Tickets are $10.

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