We gave it an A
One pair of White House hopefuls perches on hay bales for the TV cameras; the other pitches family values. Seems time, again, for Woody Guthrie — the legendary folksinger who once walked off a New York stage when he was asked to sit on a hay bale to sing. When you’re a natural, you don’t need props. And you communicate family values through a song, not a press release.
Fortunately for today’s families, some of Woody Guthrie’s personal musical gifts to his kids have just been rediscovered, released — and updated by the singer’s own grown-up offspring. There are two new music releases of Guthrie’s songs for children, as well as a songbook written and illustrated in the 1940s by Guthrie and his wife, Marjorie, that was originally intended for their three children. Called Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs, the album is being released by two labels — one by Warner on CD and cassettes, the other by HarperCollins on cassette, packaged with the songbook of the same title.
The array of releases is the brainchild of the most prominent member of the clan, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie (Alice’s Restaurant), who sings lead on five of the songs and is one of the executive producers. There’s nothing contrived here, except for the electronics enabling the family to sing with Woody, a la Natalie and Nat ”King” Cole. Some of the songs were previously recorded by Woody; all have been sweetened here with added instruments and voices. The result? They’re as good as children’s music gets.
”Grow Big” began when the unpublished songbook was uncovered by a family friend two years ago in the library of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Drawing from the songs in the book (which includes musical notation), the three Guthrie children and seven grandchildren turned the music into a family project, spending seven months recording Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs.
Familiar songs include ”Howdy Doo” (”Howji doozle oodle oojie howja do”), a jewel of invention, baby talk at its best. ”Don’t You Push Me Down” (”You can even wash my face, but don’t you push me down”) has a charming arbitrariness that only a kid, or an adult with a fine comic sensibility, could achieve. There’s a refreshing lack of interior life on these songs — not a self-esteem builder in the bunch. Guthrie sticks to something more basic: family life. In song, his child-rearing philosophy seems to have been ”clean up your room, and then we’ll dance.”
Other than the five songs in which Arlo sings lead and the other six in which his father has the honors, the rest of the songs are a joint effort. Woody sings the gorgeous lullaby ”Sleep Eye,” with his familiar twang. Then at the end, son Arlo, 45, takes a solo verse, as if singing to his father, who died in 1967. The effect may be a bit maudlin, but it’s powerful.
The songbook, a hardback of approximately 40 pages, is a virtual replica of the intimately unpolished original. Woody’s charming, child-friendly sketches are preserved on almost every page, and the music is charted for accompanying guitar; pickers will find it indispensable.
In all three permutations, ”Grow Big” reminds you why so many contemporary folksingers are emerging as outstanding kids’ entertainers: They’re singing Woody Guthrie songs.