Following on from This Machine Still Kills Fascists, Okemah Rising, the second collection of songs recorded in Tulsa featuring unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie they’ve set to music and again with his grandson Cole Quest on dobro and backing vocals, it rolls out with rolling military drums and Tim Brennan’s accordion for ‘My Eyes Are Gonna Shine’, the title providing the refrain on a number that, looking to the day “When my working folks take power”, is firmly anchored in the political context of the time with the line “When I get rid of Taft and Hartley” a reference to The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, aka the Taft–Hartley Act, a federal law restricting the activities and power of labour unions, that was passed by Congress despite President Truman attempt at a veto. The track also contains the line “When Henry Wallace signs my papers/And I get rid of thieves and gamblers/Phonies, pimps, and sidewalk ramblers”, referencing the farmer and politician who served as Roosevelt’s Vice President as well as Secretary For Agriculture, supporting the New Deal, and whose left wing views would have earned Guthrie’s support.
The album features some guest collaborators, the first up being The Violent Femmes for ‘Gotta Get To Peekskill’, another rollicking number with a “Break a leg or die” refrain that takes the tempo down in the final stretch. Peeksville is a city in northwestern Westchester County, New York, which, on August 27, 1949, was the site of riots, fuelled by the Ku Klux Klan, prior to a concert that, a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was due to feature Paul Robeson. It was postponed to Sept 9 at which Robeson (who’s mentioned in the song) was, as per the song, joined by Guthrie though, despite the line “I just got a feelin’ that blood’s gonna fly”, it actually went off without incident, although violence did erupt after it ended with attacks on those leaving.
Opening with accordion, mandolin and banjo to the fore and with a less frenetic pace, ‘Watchin’ The World Go By’ is one of Guthrie’s hobo/migrant worker lyrics (“I been catching them freight trains/I been riding them railroads/I been sleeping in a boxcar… I been shingling a rooftop/I been tending to a new crop”), though the line “I been working on a new road/I been working on the railroad/But I can’t ride on neither” carries with it an underlying allusion to segregation and discrimination.
Things return to a rousing Irish whirl for ‘I Know How It Feels’ with its empathy for the downtrodden and disenfranchised (“And I know how it feels when you slave like a dog/And you ain’t got a thing that you own/I know how it feels when you walk on the street/And you don’t see a face that you know/And I know how it feels to work ‘til you drop/And it’s 10,000 bills that you owe”) married to a call to unionise and come together in the struggle (“I know how it feels to join a union/Speak up like a man and fight/I know how it feels to march and sing/When you know that your fight is right”).
Growlingly sung by Ken Casey with a rhythm somewhere between work song and shanty, ‘Rippin’ Up The Boundary Line’ has them joined by fellow Bostonian Jesse Ahern, the song echoing the sentiments of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ as, recalling his comment “Somebody way up in a big high office has drawed a boundary line around every one of us and it keeps all of us cut off apart”, it speaks of the pleasure in tearing down such divisions. Harmonica wailing and percussion clanging, the loping prowl of ‘Hear The Curfew Blow’ is more of a narrative sketch about a man on the run from the law (“The Sheriff’s men, boys/They’re on my tail in the midnight wind/Hear the Curfew blow/And when they catch me/My body will hang on the gallows pole”) but one which again touches on racism (“my only crime is not being your kind”).
That’s followed by a track featuring country songstress Jaime Wyatt, the Celtic stomping ‘Bring It Home’, a playful storysong about one Bill Jackson who, every time he rolled home late from some spree or a euphemistic “friendly chat with a neighbor down the way”, he’d try to mollify the missus by buying her the latest electrical contraption until one day he returned to a note saying “Good morning dear, good evening dear, good afternoon I say/I’m having the friendliest chat of my life with the neighbor down the way/I’m checking their connections to see the things they’ll do/It occurred they’d make a mighty fine replacement for you”. Then, shifting the mood is the more lilting, tin whistle-coloured swayaylong ‘When I Was A Little Boy’, a no punches pulled lullaby about growing up and what it entails in a world of struggle (“When you are a little boy, first you’ll have to grow/Then you’ll have to guess, and then you’ll have to know/First you’ll play marbles and next you’ll play ball/But you’ll have to study fightin’, study fightin’ most of all”).
Firmly lyrically dated and decidedly a playful doggerel throwaway perhaps, but there’s still fun to be had with the express train racing rhythm rockabilly punk folk ‘Run Hitler Run’ (“Hitler and Goebbels, they jumped the creek/Ain’t no one seen ‘em since last week…Hitler got drunk, stayed out all night/The French women didn’t treat him right”), the album ending with ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston – Tulsa Version’, an acoustic guitar, drums, handclaps, foot stamping, and mandolin drunken shanty revisiting of the number they previously recorded on 2004’s Give ‘Em the Boot IV and again on 2005’s The Warrior’s Code and which featured on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, here finding context among the other Guthrie lyrics.
A more musically rough-hewn, rumbustious, unsubtle approach to bringing Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics to life than the Bragg and Wilco albums perhaps, but you can feel his blood and heartbeat pumping though every note as well as being swept away by that distinctive Dropkick musical banshee blend of Bushmills and Guinness. As Springsteen put it, you should definitely come on up for the Rising.
‘Gotta Get To Peekskill’ official video: