Music: When Folk and Rock Get Together

A tribute to a historic record label brings the past up to date

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Bruce Springsteen's two cuts get to the core of another side of Guthrie: all the rue and desperate rage and inviolate pride he used to write about society's disenfranchised. If Dylan's contribution forges a bond between his past and future, Springsteen sings to plow earth and show roots. Anyone who wonders where the populism and spareness of Springsteen's work in the '80s sprang from -- and who has missed his memorable Guthrie performances in concert -- can catch up here by playing Vigilante Man and I Ain't Got No Home. Similarly, U2's rip-it-up rendition of Guthrie's Jesus Christ and John Mellencamp's front-porch dose of Do Re Mi have a musical vigor that snugly fits the sounds of today. Woody's lyrics may be Depression spirited, but they + never date; as a writer, he had an ear for the ages.

Folkways is weighted a little heavier toward Guthrie than Leadbelly, perhaps because the Smithsonian also is negotiating to buy the extensive Woody Guthrie archive. But the wildest cut on the album -- even surpassing a nifty Little Richard rave-up on the Rock Island Line -- is Brian Wilson's treatment of Leadbelly's Goodnight Irene. In the wake of the landlocked Beach Boy's superb first solo album, there has been quite enough recent publicity, thanks, about his extensive physical trials and mental tribulations. Perhaps there is a deliberate irony in this seminal but spun-out musical force singing a tune that begins "Sometimes I have a good notion/ To jump in the river and drown," but if so, it is unacknowledged. Wilson bulls ahead into a delirious arrangement of interknit harmonies, overlayered synthesizers and skittish vocals that is completely ravishing.

Even under such heavy disguise, though, there is no use pretending that the music on this record isn't of a kind that has long fallen into popular disfavor. This is folk music and -- noticeably in Arlo Guthrie's lean and loving rendition of his father's East Texas Red -- proud of it too. Despite periodic rapprochements, rock has always looked on folk with unease. For folkies, rock risked commercial compromise, while rockers always suspected folkies of being sanctimonious. When John Lennon wanted to put down Paul McCartney's suite on Side 2 of Abbey Road, he called it "folk songs for grannies." Lennon's last music picked up a lot from folk, however, just as all the musicians on this record have picked up their own inspirations, taken them away and, with a lot of change and a fresh fullness of spirit, brought them back home again, here. That is what makes Folkways unique: not only the sound of tribute but of giving thanks.

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