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Award-winning singer-songwriter Joel Rafael has been playing Woody Guthrie songs almost as long as he's been playing music - for more than three decades. A regular performer at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Music Festival in Woody's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, Rafael was granted access to the huge trove of uncompleted Guthrie songs -- mostly lyrics with no melodies -- left behind when the Godfather of Topical Folk Songs died in 1967 by Nora Guthrie, director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, who calls Joel "one of the true interpreters."
On April 26, Appleseed Recordings will release "Woodyboye: Songs of Woody Guthrie (and Tales Worth Telling) Volume II" (APR CD 1086), which includes four previously unrecorded Guthrie lyrics set to music by vocalist-guitarist Rafael with his acoustic, San Diego-based band (daughter Jamaica Rafael on violin and vocals, Carl Johnson on lead guitar). The CD contains seven other Guthrie songs, only three of them previously recorded for release by Woody, including "Stepstone," on which Joel trades verses with Jackson Browne and Jimmy LaFave while Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, joins in on the choruses.
Other musical guests on the CD include the Burns Sisters and Jennifer Warnes on additional vocals, Van Dyke Parks, best known for penning the lyrics for Brian Wilson's long-shelved but recently and triumphantly revived "SMiLE" CD, on keyboards and accordion, Matt Cartsonis (banjo, mandola), who has performed with Warren Zevon, Warnes, and Parks, among others, and a rhythm section comprised of Mauricio Lewak, Jackson Browne's drummer, and Will Landin, Jimmy LaFave's bassist.
In choosing Guthrie songs, familiar, obscure and/or "new" for "Woodyboye," Rafael says he "was looking for songs that would show off Guthrie's tremendous lyric skills and his appetite for diverse subject matter. For songs that would demonstrate his timeless sense of how things work and the way things are." The CD is indeed full of "tales worth telling" to a 21st Century audience: stories of political martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti ("Two Good Men"), the Dust Bowl disenfranchised ("Heaven My Home"), and Guthrie-like cross-country ramblers driven by compulsion or circumstance ("Stepstone," "Ramblin' Reckless Hobo"). Strong women join the fight in a pair of Wild West adventures ("Rangers Command," "Circle of Truth") and are courted in the playful "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" (a Guthrie lyric with its tune added by England's Billy Bragg). The eerie "Dance Around My Atom Fire," one of the songs completed by Joel, is a tempered welcome to the nuclear age, with its potential for "brotherhood or a world of ashes." Guthrie's faith in God ("Your Sandal String," with strings composed and arranged by Jamaica) and man's potential ("Love Thyself" and "This Train is Bound for Glory," the CD's best-known song), adds extra dimensions to this complex man's world view.
Seamlessly mixed in with the Guthrie lyrics is a Rafael original, "Sierra Blanca Massacre," a true-life 1987 tragedy involving undocumented Mexican immigrants, whose plight was the topic of several Guthrie songs.
"Woodyboye" follows the creative and artistic success of the Rafael Band's preceding CD, "Woodeye," released in 2003 on Jackson Browne's Inside Recordings label. "Woodeye" contained 13 Guthrie originals, including one completed by Rafael ("Dance a Little Longer"), and a Rafael tribute to Woody's Okemah hometown.
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