10 Essential Woody Guthrie Covers

10 Essential Woody Guthrie Covers

by Kevin McElvaney

The name “Woody Guthrie” is practically synonymous with American folk music. Guthrie was an extremely prolific songwriter, estimated to have scribed close to 3,000 sets of lyrics in his lifetime. But his place in musical history wasn’t secured with quantity alone. Woody’s songs addressed topics as varied as romance, notorious criminals, and the struggles of Dust Bowl farmers. Guthrie’s broad worldview gave his songs a wide appeal, ensuring that future generations of musicians would carry his lyrical torch for decades to come.

In 1967, author John Steinbeck wrote of “something more important” beneath the surface of Guthrie’s populist songs, saying, “I think we call this the American spirit.”

Although he died in 1967, Woody’s spirit lives on through the covers and tributes played by his musical successors. Here are 10 of the best.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - “California Stars” / “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”

1998’s Mermaid Avenue is a collaboration between British folk troubadour Billy Bragg and the iconic indie rock band Wilco. All of the songs feature unreleased lyrics from Guthrie’s massive archive, with original music composed by Bragg and Wilco. These tracks are two of the highlights.

Dropkick Murphys - “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”

This unreleased Guthrie track was set to music by Boston punk band, the Dropkick Murphys. The song was famously featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film The Departed, and has been a mainstay at sporting events ever since.

Odetta - “Rambling Round Your City”

While 1944’s “Ramblin’ Round” featured original Guthrie lyrics, the music was based on the classic Lead Belly track, “Goodnight Irene.” Odetta’s 1963 cover pays homage to both men — sporting a low, rumbling guitar tone reminiscent of Lead Belly’s most famous recordings.

Jonatha Brooke - “My Sweet and Bitter Bowl” / “You’d Oughta Be Satisfied Now”

Prior to recording her 2008 album, The Works, singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke was invited by Woody’s daughter Nora to interpret some unreleased lyrics from her father’s archive. These two songs, which happen to be the first two tracks on The Works, showcase the emotional depth of Woody’s writing.

Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Jim James - “Careless Reckless Love”

Another project initiated by Nora Guthrie, the 2012 album New Multitudes features members of My Morning Jacket, Uncle Tupelo, and Monsters of Folk. The tender ballad, “Careless Reckless Love,” is a stand-out among the album’s 12 stellar tracks.

The Klezmatics - “Gonna Get Through This World”

If you’ve ever wondered what the words of Woody Guthrie would sound like played in an Eastern European Klezmer style, wonder no more! This song comes from the 2006 LP, Wonder Wheel, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.

Slaid Cleaves - “This Morning I Am Born Again”

Yet another unreleased Guthrie song, set to music by singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves for his 2000 album, Broke Down. It feels right at home among Cleaves’ other songs, demonstrating the timeless quality of Guthrie’s writing.

Bruce Springsteen - “This Land is Your Land”

What better way to end this list than with a version of Woody’s most famous song, performed by one of his biggest fans? This stirring 1985 performance by The Boss brought down the house at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum, and it still holds up today.