Released to counter the popular perception of Woody Guthrie as a blissed-out wastrel whose main contribution to American music was to provide Bruce Springsteen with the acoustic set piece "This Land Is Your Land," this CD succeeds through both its varied themes and the personal portrait of Guthrie it advances.
Having Guthrie's material delivered by a host of heavy-hitting folk and rock luminaries doesn't hurt, either. Ani DiFranco's quirky and often-hushed rendition of "Do Re Me," for instance, infuses that anti-materialistic anthem with a threatening tone that Guthrie perhaps never envisioned. Then there's Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a Guthrie contemporary who, judging from his craggily eccentric versions of "1913 Massacre" and "Talking Dust Bowl," seems grateful to have more substantive material to sink his presumably prosthetic choppers into than the sappy NPR staple "Old Shep." Not to be overlooked is Bruce Springsteen's reading of "Riding in My Car," a performance whose loopy glee suggests the Boss might have a future competing against Barney if the arena-tour thing doesn't work out. Conversely, when Springsteen drawls the line "You won't have a name when you ride that big airplane" during "Plain Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," he hints hauntingly at the power of death to render anonymous those of low and lofty station alike. That such a compassionate line was penned by an artist who told racist jokes on the radio until a black listener complained of this practice (this incident is described in the spoken snippet "It Ain't About Bein' Perfect") is both ironic and intriguing.
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Less effective, though, is Dave Pirner's "Pretty Boy Floyd," a pedestrian rendering that seems to have been included less for artistic reasons than to market the Soul Asylum singer as a neo-folkie now that his band has about as much life in it as the song's namesake. In a similar fashion, the Indigo Girls' "Ramblin' 'Round" suffers from the annoying over-emoting that has unfortunately become the gals' hallmark. Such flaws hardly matter, however, when, over the strains of "This Land Is Your Land," Arlo Guthrie breathlessly recounts the collection's title piece. A tale of two harried hares who hole up in a hollow log to escape pursuing hounds and decide to stay there until they outnumber their adversaries, this nugget could be addressed as much to the music-industry establishment as to the average listener. A few more outings like this one, captured live at Cleveland's Severance Hall, and the so-called folk revival will no longer be limited to a smattering of voices in the wilderness.