Sometimes a record appears out of the blue that has the potential to be very important. Thomas Bull has recorded seven Woody Guthrie songs; not reworked them exactly but freshened them up for the 21st century in other ways. A Fast Running Train Whistles Down is a chapter title from Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound For Glory and on the record Thomas is accompanied by Joe Downard on bass, Max Revell on percussion and, the key sound, Dan Walsh on banjo, proving how restrained he can be.
In fact the banjo is the first sound we hear on the opener, ‘Hard Travelin’’. Thomas has completely rewritten the song, which I can’t approve of. Some of the original language is very dated but Guthrie aficionados would understand their meaning so we must accept it as a sort of overture but I’ll reserve judgment. Up next, ‘This Land Is Your Land’ has a chequered history with some verses – the more political ones – omitted in some published texts. Thomas doesn’t do that, although he rearranges it somewhat, but the two key verses remain intact. As Woody almost said, these songs were made for you and me.
Thomas interleaves the songs with some archive interviews with Woody with music in the background. The first one reminded me of a radio interview Bob Dylan gave in the early 60s – possibly with Cynthia Gooding – in which Dylan spun her a whole load of make-believe – except that every word that Guthrie speaks is true.
‘Two Good Men’ is Guthrie’s take on the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, another overtly political song. Vanzetti went to the electric chair for his union organising as was Sacco but both were convicted on controversial murder charges. The judge called them “anarchist bastards” so you can see that they got a fair trial. Thomas gives the song a chugging beat – not really a train rhythm but perhaps echoing the noise of the factory in which they worked.
‘Buffalo Skinners’ is, for Guthrie, an historical song but staying with the theme of worker exploitation and written in the style of a ballad. Thomas sticks to the story well enough but rewrites the song and this is beginning to annoy me now. The second interview is an amusing tale about how Woody was conned into selling bootleg liquor and that’s followed by ‘Big City Ways’, Guthrie’s view of the “bushwah” life in the cities. ‘Hard Ain’t It Hard’ is a sort of love song which Thomas treats rather like a set of floating verses.
‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ takes us back to ‘Hard Travelin’’ as Guthrie represents the thousands who have no stake in the world they find themselves. Once again Thomas rewrites some lines and omits a significant verse. The album finishes with Woody talking about the dust-storms of the 1930s.
Now I have a problem. I’ve enjoyed listening to A Fast Running Train Whistles Down and I admire the arrangements and musical treatments Thomas employs but I don’t hold with the lyrical changes he’s made. I wish I could totally enthuse about the record but that’s a way down the line but if Thomas can bring a new audience to Woody Guthrie that will be a rousing success.
Artist’s website: https://thomasbull.bandcamp.com/releases
‘This Land Is Your Land’:
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