Woody Guthrie isn’t just important for his own music, but for the voices he inspired. In this list, Woody’s disciples pay him back by covering some of his best-loved songs.
Gene Autry, “Oklahoma Hills”
The legendary "Singing Cowboy" recorded this song during his mid-'40s heyday, shortly after Woody's brother Jack Guthrie scored a jukebox hit with a Western swing version. While Autry's recording wasn't one of his biggest hits, it stands as an archetypal rendition of the tune. Dozens of other takes by big name singers followed over the years, to the point that Oklahoma eventually declared Woody's original the "official state folk song."
Cisco Houston, “The Sinking Of The Reuben James”
Written shortly after the Reuben James became the first U.S. Navy ship sunk in World War II, this tribute to its sailors became one of Woody's best-known story-songs. Cisco Houston was one of Woody's closest friends from the late 1930s through their early-'40s days in the Merchant Marines; he recorded this version many years later for an album that was released in 1961, the same year Houston died of cancer at age 42.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Howdido”
A teenage Ramblin' Jack turned to Woody as a mentor in the late '40s and eventually became one of the primary forces in bringing Guthrie's music to the masses. Songs To Grow On, patterned after a similar children's music album by Woody, was among several albums of Guthrie tunes Elliott made in his early years. "Howdido," with its goofy "howgee higee heegee hogee" scatting, was a perfect match for Elliott's charmingly offbeat demeanor.
Pete Seeger, “Mail Myself To You”
Probably no other artist is more closely associated with Guthrie than Seeger, who first met Woody in 1940; they became fast friends and frequent collaborators in the Almanac Singers folk collective. Though their music often steered toward sociopolitical territory, Seeger also appreciated Guthrie's humorous side, as his classic delivery of this simple little ditty attests. A half century later, it remains one of his most endearing, and enduring, nods to Woody.
Donovan, “Car Car (Riding In My Car)”
Part of the reason Donovan was often compared to Bob Dylan when he first surfaced in the mid '60s is that he shared Dylan's reverence for Woody's music. Donovan included "Car Car" on his very first album in 1965; still in his teens at the time, the British singer retained the playful spirit of youth needed to pull it off. You can hear the innocence in his voice when he introduces the tune as "for Woody."
Bob Dylan, “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt”
Woody had been dead less than four months when Bob Dylan and the Band took the stage at Carnegie Hall for a tribute concert in January 1968 that was issued as a live album four years later. The raw nerve of his vocal delivery betrayed the sorrow he still felt, as did the choice of this song, which Woody had written shortly after FDR's passing. It's one of the most emotionally charged performances of Dylan's career, grounded by the Band's sure-handed support.
The Byrds, “Pretty Boy Floyd”
Roger McGuinn and his fellow Byrds had shown early on their ability to bring folk troubadour material alive in full-band arrangements, via their pop reworkings of Dylan tunes. By 1968, they were turning toward country, and so their approach to this classic Guthrie outlaw ballad is colored largely by banjo and fiddle, both courtesy guest picker John Hartford. It delivers the same sort of classic Byrds magic, though, in terms of creating mass appeal for a song.
Arlo Guthrie, “1913 Massacre”
Though this 1972 album is most notable for Arlo's smash-hit rendition of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," it also contains the finest of his many recordings of his father's songs he's made over the decades. A rare Christmas song that's tragic rather than merry, "1913 Massacre" documents the holiday deaths of striking miners in Michigan; it's best set in the kind of minimal arrangement Arlo applies here, his voice full of empathy for the gravity of the situation.
Barbara Dane, “Ludlow Massacre”
Lesser known than "1913 Massacre" but similarly powerful, "Ludlow Massacre" addressed the deaths of striking coal miners at the hands of the Colorado National Guard in 1914. Also lesser-known is Barbara Dane, though it's a bit hard to figure why; on this track, released in 1973, her voice is full of passion, poise and character. It's telling that Bonnie Raitt has cited Dane as an early influence.
The Highwaymen, “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)”
Akin to Guthrie's "Massacre" songs, "Deportee" addresses a real-life tragedy, the 1948 crash in California of a plane carrying deported Mexican migrant workers. It's one of Woody's most-covered songs, but no one can trump the combined star-power of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in this version recorded for their supergroup debut in 1985. They treat the song with grace and respect, allowing their instantly recognizable voices to carry the message.
Bruce Springsteen, “I Ain’t Got No Home”
Having raised his Guthrie flag by closing shows on his Born in the U.S.A. tour with "This Land Is Your Land," Springsteen upped the ante on this 1988 tribute album with a stunning acoustic rendition of a hauntingly stark and vivid song about hard times in America. You can draw a direct line from this track backward to Bruce's 1982 album Nebraska and forward to his 1995 disc The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Nanci Griffith with Guy Clark, “Do Re Mi”
Griffith won a Grammy for her 1993 album surveying a wide range of songwriters who had helped shape her own music. She chose one of Woody's best-known tunes, one that's not necessarily easy to put a fresh spin on. She succeeded with the help of Texas troubadour Guy Clark, who turned their duet into a lively duel of twang and grit, bringing out the earthy and folksy flair in Griffith's persona.
Wilco & Billy Bragg, “California Stars”
With this album arrived a whole new future for the Guthrie legacy: long-dormant pages of Woody's lyrics revived via melodies crafted by contemporary musicians. Wilco takes the lead role on this perfect example, which remains a staple of their live shows more than a decade later. Bragg contributed many high points as well (most notably "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key"); a second volume followed, and then a whole new Woody cottage industry.
Solas, “Pastures Of Plenty”
As quintessentially American as Guthrie's songs are, they've also connected with audiences overseas, particularly in the British Isles. The adventurous trad-Irish outfit Solas serves up evidence with their fascinating take on "Pastures of Plenty," a song that benefits greatly from their fresh perspective, given how deeply Woody's original is ingrained in the American canon. Fiddles, pipes and unrelenting rhythms drive the sublime vocals of Karan Casey to heights the song had never reached before.
Dan Zanes with John Doe, “So Long (It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)”
Hard to imagine two early-'80s underground rockers collaborating 20 years later on an acoustic Woody Guthrie track for a children's album, but so went the fates of the Del Fuegos' Dan Zanes and X's John Doe. Zanes found a whole new career as a star of "kids' music that parents like," and his recruitment of Doe for this 2002 duet on a well-traveled Woody song produced a beautiful keeper.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “This Land Is Your Land”
At this point, there's not much reason to take on a song that's essentially become a secondary national anthem unless you can make people reconsider it in an entirely new context. Enter Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, who excavate "This Land" from folkie purgatory and plop it down right in the middle of a soul-funk landscape. They also wisely include the "lost" verse about the private-property sign that was blank on the other side ("That side was made for you and me").
Old Crow Medicine Show, “Union Maid”
Old Crow's old-time string-band style allows for an intriguing approach to Guthrie: Essentially they're taking his music back to a time before it was written. "Union Maid," from the band's 2006 breakthrough album, is one of those Woody songs most everyone recognizes instantly, thanks to its insanely catchy "stickin' to the union" chorus; OCMS's full-throttle acoustic delivery is so irrepressible that it's almost impossible not to sing along.
Klezmatics, “Mermaid’s Avenue”
Picking up the baton from Wilco and Billy Bragg, cosmopolitan-klezmer outfit the Klezmatics mined the archives of Guthrie lyrics and set a dozen songs to new melodies they fashioned, stretching the stylistic horizons of Woody's repertoire ever further. Best of the bunch was this song written about the same Brooklyn street that the Bragg/Wilco project was named for; the Klezmatics bring it to life with a bright, brassy arrangement and rich vocal harmonies.
Jackson Browne, “You Know The Night”
The 2011 compilation Note of Hope is the most ambitious of all the new Guthrie collections, consisting of prose passages performed as spoken word with jazz accompaniment or as loosely structured songs. Browne closes the album with this 15-minute epic, a brilliant stream-of-consciousness ramble about the night Woody met his wife Marjorie, set to steadily shuffling light percussion and wandering acoustic guitar and bass lines. It feels like it could go on forever.
Mike + Ruthy, “My New York City”
There's perhaps no better way to summarize the lasting impact of Woody Guthrie's music than to note the quality of the very newest music being made with his words. Husband-wife Mike and Ruthy Merenda got the lyrics to "My New York City" from the Guthrie archives and set it to one of the most gorgeous melodies ever to accompany one of Woody's songs. It came out in April 2012: Brand new right now, it's destined to become a classic.