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Til We Outnumber Em | Songs of Woody Guthrie | review | folk | compilation | Lollipop

'Til We Outnumber 'Em...

The Songs of Woody Guthrie (Righteous Babe)
by Jamie Kiffel

All you punkers, all you hardcore anti-establishment rockers, all you government haters, you can trace your steel-toed boot tracks to this man's head. He pushed politics up the nose and out the mouth of art, worked in the worst of the dollar-a-day jobs and banged out his most defiant thoughts on his guitar. He made noise about racism, about the little guy being treated like junk, about working for The Man. And he did it on an acoustic guitar with the sometime help of a harmonica.

He was Woody Guthrie, and 'Til We Outnumber 'Em is an exploration of the brain of a radical man whose style planted many of the roots for governmentally-reactive music like punk. It includes some musicians from Guthrie's time (Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Country Joe McDonald) and several from ours (Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, David Pirnir, Ani DiFranco). They all sing Guthrie's music, and they do it for a good reason.

Until Guthrie, most everybody sang sweet, unquestionable songs about love. Guthrie thought singing about love was a damn good excuse to avoid singing about the insidious mess that was really happening out there. In the dust bowl of Oklahoma where Guthrie lived, American families worked their fingers raw, just to get by. It seemed just about no one had the money or dignity to live like a human being. Thanks, Uncle Sam - we're dying out here, is what Guthrie realized. So this music, from and for the "regular folks," is not pretty stuff to put on your phonograph. It's subversive stuff to make you think. And that still makes a whole lot of rich people very uncomfortable. They would love it if all you kids believed Guthrie was just a boring old folkie. They'd rest easy if you didn't think twice about his societal questioning. That's why this disc was made - to make sure that Guthrie's ideas don't get vacuum-sealed in a safe glass bottle.

So you might not be thrilled with the laid-back, middle-America sound of Ramblin' Jack or Arlo Guthrie. Listen a little harder. This stuff was as annoying to the upper crust of Guthrie's time as metal is to Republican wives today. The stories of guys leaning on pressure drills for a dollar a day, folks being duped by politicians and living through horrors the government keeps quiet, are sung full of defiance and anger.

The most noteworthy musicians on the disc are Bruce Springsteen, whose gravelly voice, seemingly full of dust and tears, makes beautiful noise of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," about deportees who are never named when their plane crashes. He also does a bang-up job with the one children's song on the disc, "Riding in My Car." For that song alone, the disc is worth hearing. Tim Robbins performs a mesmerizing spoken word, and Ani DiFranco performs a dejected, funky, clearly Ani tune. There is too much talking on the disc, and I find it to be largely self-indulgent. Additionally, what often gets lost in the enthusiasm of recording these songs is the original eeriness and suppressed rage that comes through Guthrie's voice. However, if this inspires just a few more rockers to explore their folk roots, that many more conservative oppressors will have good reason to be afraid for the revolution.
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