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Monday, 09 July 2012 07:00

The top 15 Woody Guthrie covers

The top 15 Woody Guthrie covers commons.wikimedia.org
Written by Robin Wheeler
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Woody Guthrie had his own views on copyright law, which he often expressed on his lyric pages with a clear and humorous addendum.

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

While the copyright laws are a bit more complicated now, musicians have followed Guthrie's orders for years, keeping his work alive through renditions of his songs. Here's 15 of my favorites, in honor of Guthrie's centennial this week. Join 88.1 KDHX at Off Broadway on July 14 for "Just One Big Soul," a benefit for KDHX, featuring 12 regional artists and bands celebrating his 100th birthday with brand new takes on his timeless songs.

15. "Do Re Mi" - Uncle Tupelo

In their post-Uncle Tupelo careers, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy have given new life to Woody Guthrie's forgotten lyrics through their "New Multitudes" and "Mermaid Avenue" projects. Prior, they stuck to traditional Dust Bowl twang built into a banjo fury.

14. "Shipping up to Boston" - Dropkick Murphys

Considered by most Guthrie experts -- including daughter and archive-keeper Nora -- to be some of Woody's worst writing, Dropkick Murphys took a sea chanty about a sailor with searching for his wooden leg, and turned it into an anthem for not only the Celt punks, but for the Boston Red Sox. The song's a part of their home games.

13. "Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)" - The Highwaymen

After the press slapped the label "deportees" on 28 Mexican nationals who died in a 1948 plane crash, Guthrie wrote a song fueled by his fury at the lack of dignity afforded the dead. The next generation of singers to speak for the oppressed -- Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson with some help from Johnny Rodriguez -- revived the tale in 1985.

12. "This Train Is Bound for Glory" - Railroad Revival Tour

Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show went on a most Guthrian tour in spring, 2011 -- the bands traveled by train from California to Louisiana, performing shows along the way. The spirit carried onto the stage.

11. "Ramblin' Round Your City" - Odetta

One of the most important artists to combine music and activism, Odetta recorded one of Guthrie's great refugee tales in 1963, the same year she sang at the March on Washington. Two years earlier Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had called her "The Queen of American folk music."


10. "Riding in My Car" - Bruce Springsteen

At the height of his mid-'80s popularity, Springsteen reminded audiences of the greatness of "This Land Is Your Land" as a protest song. A few years later, he infused one of Guthrie's kids tunes with catchy humor.


9. "Union Maid" - Old Crow Medicine Show

Not veering far from Guthrie's roots, Old Crow Medicine Show do traditional justice to a fiery ode to union women.


8. "Talking Empty Bed Blues" - Yim Yames, Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Will Johnson

For this year's "New Multitudes" project, My Morning Jacket's Jim James (under his Y-heavy moniker) joined with Farrar, Parker and Johnson to breathe life into some of Guthrie's lost lyrics. They brought Guthrie out of the Dust Bowl and demolished the Okie caricature with raw sensuality.


7. "Vigilante Man" - The Flaming Lips

During the first Guthrie centennial celebration in Tulsa last March, fellow Oklahomans the Flaming Lips performed the song entirely on iPads, rocketing Guthrie into the future. The timelessness of Guthrie's lyrics transcended the few traditionalists in the crowd who didn't see the Lips' weirdness as a good thing.


6. "All You Fascists" - Billy Bragg

When Nora Guthrie decided to open her father's lyric archives to musicians in the mid-'90s, her first choice was British rabble-rouser Bragg, who brought guitars fired up to kill fascists dead with Guthrie's 1940s anti-fascist rant for the first of three "Mermaid Avenue" albums. They recreated some of the 3000 songs, many never heard, that fill the archives.


5. "California Stars" - Wilco

Bragg hand-picked Wilco to participate in the "Mermaid Avenue" sessions. They turned some of Guthrie's most simple lyrics into something rich and heart-felt that stands as a testament to the late Jay Bennett's ethereal playing.


4. "Oklahoma Hills" - Jack Guthrie

The ultimate Guthrie cover: Woody's cousin Jack recorded "Oklahoma Hills" while Woody was in the Merchant Marine. Jack didn't bother to tell his cousin, who learned of the recording when he heard it on a jukebox.


3. "Pretty Boy Floyd" - The Byrds

In 1968 the Byrds set the mold for modern country with their album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." With Gram Parsons on board, and John Hartford playing the banjo, they all but invented outlaw country with an update of Guthrie's great ballad. The version in this video was recorded in concert a year later.


2. "I Ain't Got No Home" - Bob Dylan and the Band

Bob Dylan showed up on Guthrie's Brooklyn doorstep in 1961, looking for guidance from his hero as he got his footing as a musician and songwriter. Dylan, backed by the Band, performed this Dust Bowl ballad at a 1968 Carnegie Hall tribute to Guthrie, just three months after he succumbed to Huntington's Disease.


1. "This Land Is Your Land" - Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

Actually, the best version of "This Land is Your Land" will be performed by an elementary school music class that's allowed to do all five verses. Jones' stripped soul version comes a close second.

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