Daugherty’s Tribute to Woody Guthrie

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THIS LAND SINGS / DAUGHERTY: Overture. The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill. Perpetual Motion Man. Marfa Lights. Hear the Dust Blow. Graceland. Forbidden Fruit. Hot Air. Bread and Roses. This Land Sings. Silver Bullet. This Trombone Kills Fascists. Don’t Sing Me a Love Song. My Heart is Burning. I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley. Mermaid Avenue/ Wayfaring Stranger/900 Miles / Annika Socolofsky, sop; John Daugherty, bar; Dogs of Desire; David Alan Miller, cond / Naxos 8.559889

Michael Daugherty is an American composer of whom I’ve not heard or heard of before, despite the fact that he has won a Grammy (which impresses me not at all…it’s a political and not a musical-oriented award). This extended cycle of songs based on the words and./or music of Woody Guthrie, however, is a pleasant and rather interesting piece.

Guthrie was a very complex person despite the surface simplicity of his music. His family sank from middle-class respectability to lower-class poverty due to the Depression; his sister died from a rare case of spontaneous combustion; and he like to hang around the African-Americans in his neighborhood because they lifted his spirits. “They were always full of jokes and fun,” is how he put it.

Like so many others during the Depression years, he was drawn to Communism, and in his case he lived it to the fullest. Even when he made the big time in the early 1940s, he was uncomfortable with his good salary and success. As a wandering drifter, he was even uncomfortable with sleeping in beds or owning a car, though he did buy a good one with the money he made from his radio show. But he walked out on the radio program and financial security to become a drifter once again. Ronnie Gilbert, the very talented mezzo who sang in The Weavers, once said that when she met Guthrie she was a little afraid of him. “He had a hard edge to him, and was wary of others the way a coyote was,” she said. He also had a habit of taking old folk tunes and adding his own lyrics to them, the most famous instance being Union Maid which was based on the old song Red Wing.

Yet there is no question that Guthrie was enormously influential, not only of the Weavers but also of Bob Dylan and countless other folk singers of the 1950s and ‘60s, and Daughterty has done a good job of transforming Guthrie to a semi-classical piece that is both interesting and entertaining.

The songs in this cycle are not tied musically to one another, though they are obviously meant to be sung in succession. At times, i.e. in Marfa Lights, Daugherty forsakes sung lyrics for a trumpet solo as the lead “voice,” writing sparse but interesting orchestration around it consisting of marimba, clarinet and strings.

Both of the singers have pretty nice voices although soprano Annika Socolofsky has fairly poor diction. On Hear the Dust Blow, a tune stolen from the folk song Down in the Valley, I couldn’t make out a single syllable of her singing. I was stunned to discover, in the liner notes, that she is an American. She sings like someone for whom English is not only not her first language but not even her second. Take the cotton out of your mouth, honey! In Graceland, Daugherty has some fun, mixing in elements of boogie woogie with an Elvis-inspired rockabilly beat. (P.S.: Bonnie and Clyde did not “take from the rich and give to the poor.” They kept for themselves.) Forbidden Fruit has the kind of beat that reminds me of the old Peggy Lee song, Fever. I also could have lived without the moronic song Hot Air, obviously a cheap shot at Rush Limbaugh because he doesn’t agree with a far-left agenda. Hardy har har, I’m laughing my butt off. “Distorting the facts”? Sorry, but as a former Democrat who believed their lies for the first 35 years of my life, your side is hands-down winner and perennial champion of fact-distorting. Trust me, it’s not even close. (See my Bonnie and Clyde comment above for one example among thousands. Toss in your love of Che Guevara for the cherry on top of the whipped cream.)

This Land Sings is a clever, uptempo instrumental transformation of Guthrie’s best-known song, This Land is Your Land (the second verse of which infringed on private property rights). A bit later, he folds Wayfaring Stranger into the mix, then uses a lick from Limehouse Blues to launch a wild uptempo section, again led by the trumpet with the violin and clarinet. Silver Bullet is a parody of Ghost Riders in the Sky; as in the case of Hot Air, it is a modern liberal polemic, this time against Second Amendment defenders. (But Woody was a staunch believer in the Second Amendment.) This Trombone Kills Fascism is an original instrumental based on the words that Guthrie had written with crayon on his guitar in the early 1940s, “This machine kills fascists.” Well, of course. The Fascists and Communists, two sides of the same coin, hated each others’ guts. The suite ends with an interesting instrumental treatment of  The suite ends with an interesting instrumental treatment of Wayfaring Stranger and 900 Miles as a medley.

All in all, this is a musically interesting suite marred by Daugherty’s political bias. Even at his most vitriolic, which was against banks that foreclosed on poor homeowners during the Dust Bowl years, Woody Guthrie was never quite as overt in most of his songs as some of these (though, as I noted, a few leaned in that direction), but this is another frightening side of some people today, the insistence that everyone think and talk and act as they do, because to be an independent thinker is to be unintelligent and biased. It’s your decision.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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