“Roll Columbia” Captures Spirit of Woody Guthrie (Album Review)

Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs will make you feel like you are sitting in a bar in Oregon listening to singers capture the spirit of Guthrie.  The album, released by Smithsonian Folkways in early 2017, pays tribute to the 26 songs Guthrie wrote in 30 days while working for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

Guthrie began his work for the BPA in May 1941, documenting what he saw in the Pacific Northwest.  During his month there, he was paid $267.  And in that short time he produced a number of songs used for a BPA movie soundtrack that later would be abandoned.  Guthrie only recorded 17 of the songs, but researchers discovered the other nine songs in the 1980s.

Folklorist Bill Murlin and Joe Seamons worked together to create Roll Columbia, an album putting together Guthrie’s BPA songs.  What makes the album special is that the artists on the album all currently live in the Pacific Northwest.  So, their connection to the place brings an added immediacy and timelessness to the songs.

You will recognize some of the songs on the album, such as one of Guthrie’s greatest songs, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”  Other songs you may know include versions of “Jackhammer John” and “Hard Travelin’.”  But one of the joys of the collection is hearing new songs, or old songs interpreted in new ways.  One of my favorites is “Eleckatricity and All,” recorded by Annalisa Tornfelt, Emily Dalafolet, and Kristin Tornfelt.

The producers asked each artist on the album to record two songs from the BPA collection.  Some artists stayed very close to Guthrie’s melodies and styles, while some took slightly different approaches.  But they all still capture Guthrie’s spirit.  The performances would not be out of place in a small Northwest bar or club.

The liner notes for Roll Columbia are wonderful.  They not only tell the history of Guthrie’s songs.  They also provide additional information about the specific recordings and artists for each song.

Artists on the album include: Carl Allen, Kristin Andreassen, Peter Buck, Darrin Craig, Steve Einhorn, Chris Funk, Tony Furtado, David Grisman, Tracy Grisman, Ben Hunter, Michael Hurley, Al James, Orville Johnson, Scott McCaughey, John Moen, Cahalen Morrison, Bill Murlin and Fine Company, Jon Neufeld, Kate Power, George Rezendes, Pharis and Jason Romero, Caitlin Belem Romtvedt, David Romtvedt, Joe Seamons, Martha Scanlan, Timberbound, and Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters.

Interestingly, the producers also recognize the complex politics underlying the songs.  They realize how our views about dams have changed over time.  Thus, it is interesting to speculate about how Guthrie today might have approached some of these songs.  How would knowledge about the environmental impact of dams affect his approach?

Overall, Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs is a highly enjoyable collection, providing an album you will want to put on and listen to several times.  You’ll enjoy the music on its own.  And you may also enjoy the stories behind the creation of the songs and the historical context.

For more on the story of how Guthrie came to write these songs, check out the book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie & the Planned Promised Land by Greg Vandy. This short video shows a little more about Guthrie’s work for the BPA film.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    New Jayhawks Album: “Paging Mr. Proust”

    News of a new Jayhawks album is always cause for celebration in my house. The band will be releasing Paging Mr. Proust this coming week on April 29, 2016, and from the first single, “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces,” it sounds like the album will have the harmonies and catchy tunes we are used to hearing from the band.

    The Jayhawk’s last album of new material was Mockingbird Time, released in 2011. That album saw Mark Olson rejoining Gary Louris and Tim O’Reagan on the album, but Olson soon departed again. The band has made some great music since it formed with Olson as well as bass player Marc Perlman, so I hate to see Olson’s departure again after an unhappy split.

    But the Jayhawks historically have shown that the group can make great music without Olson too, as they did on albums like Rainy Day Music (2003), Smile (2000), and Sound of Lies (1997). So I am hoping the rest of the band pulls it off again.

    In addition O Louris, O’Reagan, and Perlman, longtime Jayhawks member Karen Grotberg (vocals and keyboard) also returns on the new album. Below is the first single, “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces.” Check it out.

    Paging Mr. Proust was produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists). R.E.M.’s Mike Mills contributed vocals to the song “Leaving The Monsters Behind.” Paging Mr. Proust hits stores and the Internet on April 29.

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    Watch One of R.E.M.’s First Shows

    Wuxtry Records
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    The video begins in the middle of R.E.M. covering Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and ends with what later would be the band’s debut single, “Radio Free Europe.” Check it out. [2015 Update: The video from the 688 Club is no longer available, so below is the audio of “Radio Free Europe” from another 1981 show at Fridays’s in Greensboro, North Carolina on March 31, 1981.]

    For more information on this 40-minute set and other videos, check out the Slicing Up Eyeballs website.

    What do you think of the early R.E.M. performance? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    This month is the anniversary of Uncle Tupelo’s album March 16-20, 1992, which for some strange reason is the only album in my collection where I remember the exact date it was made. The album, which was produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, was recorded on the dates in the title, featuring both original songs and traditional songs.

    This third album from Uncle Tupelo reflected the band’s frustrations with its record label, so the band decided to record music they wanted to record without regard for popular tastes. Below is Uncle Tupelo performing one of the traditional songs on the album, “Moonshiner” in Columbia, Missouri on November 13, 1992.

    The CD also featured the Louvin Brothers classic, “Atomic Power.” Here is Uncle Tupelo performing the song on April 30, 1994 in St. Louis, Missouri at their second-to-last show together.

    The first song on the album, “Grindstone,” is one of my favorites of the CD. I could not find a live Uncle Tupelo performance of the song. But after Uncle Tupelo broke up, Jay Farrar, who wrote “Grindstone,” performed it with his new band, Son Volt in Minneapolis on October 16, 1995.

    Uncle Tupelo was at the forefront of the alt-country/Americana music scene in the 1990s, and the title of their first album, named after a Carter Family song, gave the name to the leading magazine of the genre, No Depression. But after March 16-20, 1992, the band released only one more CD, Anodyne (1993).

    After the band’s final album, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy dissolved the band in 1994 to go on to create more music with new bands, including fantastic work with Son Volt and Wilco, respectively. But those five days in March on this date all those years ago, they created one of the albums that defined their permanent place in music history.

    What is your favorite Uncle Tupelo song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    R.E.M. Calls It a Day

    R.E.M. announced today on their website that they are breaking up the band:

    “To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.” R.E.M.

    The website also has short messages from each of the surviving band members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills. Peter Buck notes, “Mike, Michael, Bill, Bertis, and I walk away as great friends. I know I will be seeing them in the future.”

    I’m going to be obvious and post one of the band’s biggest hits rather than be cool and go for something more obscure. But one is hard to find a better song than “Losing My Religion,” a perfect pop song about obsession and being on the verge of losing control of oneself, all wrapped up in a memorable mandolin riff. The official video is close to perfect too, but here is a live performance from MTV. Au revoir R.E.M.

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    What is your favorite R.E.M. song or memory? Leave a comment.

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