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Michael DAUGHERTY (b 1954) This Land Sings – Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2016)
Annika Socolofsky (soprano); John Daugherty (baritone)
Dogs of Desire/David Alan Miller
rec. 2017, Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, New York
Texts included in the booklet NAXOS 8.559889 [66:55]
My first awareness of Michael Daugherty emerged in the late 1990s with the release of his ‘pop’ opera Jackie O by Decca/Argo. I recall being fascinated by its garish, Warholesque packaging and being sold on its intriguing premise and promise, only to be rather underwhelmed by the work itself. In the intervening quarter century I have found Daugherty’s music to be increasingly congenial; there’s been a steady stream of releases, mostly on Naxos, dedicated in the main to big orchestral works predominantly inspired by American topography, history, literature and/or iconography. In This Land Sings he has combined all these interests in a hugely ambitious but paradoxically small-scale homage to the original ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’ Woody Guthrie, one of the most important, yet unassuming of American ‘icons’. The work consists of a sequence of eleven songs (performed by soprano and/or baritone) interpolated with six numbers for a flexible ensemble comprising seven players (two each of wind, brass and strings plus a percussionist). It is good to hear a relatively rare example of Daugherty’s non-orchestral work; it certainly reinforces his reputation for instrumental resourcefulness and highlights a considerable melodic facility.
Whilst any number of Guthrie’s songs and adaptations are immortal, Daugherty wisely avoids literal quotation of familiar tunes, instead contributing eleven songs of his original design which collectively paint a portrait of a complex individual whose life was defined in equal measure by pacifism, politics, travelling and tragedy. As is Daugherty’s wont, there is much here in the way of allusion: to the folksongs and hymn tunes that Guthrie adapted; to the words and ideas of contemporary left-leaning writers, thinkers and firebrands; to the places connected by Guthrie’s travels, even to the spirit of the AM radio stations (and their ‘shock-jocks’ and provocateurs) with which he would have been familiar. The instruments Daugherty has selected for his ensemble (including fiddle and double bass, a perky, sometimes doleful bassoon and a ripe trombone), project a spontaneity and rawness which suits the concept to a tee – although the playing itself is technically flawless.
After a bustling mini-overture, which references the original hymn tune co-opted by Guthrie to form the melody of (arguably) his most famous song, ‘This Land is Your Land’, a lonely solo fiddle launches the intricate The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill, an elegant fusion of lament and polemic which muses upon the fate and legacy of a legendary but ill-fated activist for worker’s rights (his tragic story also inspired Joe Hill – The Man who Never Died, one of the four operas by the lifelong communist Alan Bush, tellingly only performed to date in East Germany). Daugherty immediately proves to be an accomplished songwriter and tunesmith in his own right. The third number, Perpetual Motion Man captures Guthrie’s ants-in-his-pants impulse to keep on moving in a zingy ‘hit number’. Here the singers, soprano Annika Socolofsky and baritone John Daugherty (no relation) take turns describing different modes of travel – in duet their rich, versatile voices - equally comfortable in folk, jazz or classical idioms - seem made for each other. After a dark instrumental interlude Marfa Lights which evokes the Mexican borderlands by means of a mariachi-tinged solo flugelhorn comes Hear the Dust Blow, a moving lament which describes the catastrophic dust storms that struck Oklahoma and Texas during the 1930s – here Daugherty has skilfully recast the folk song Down in the Valley for Socolofsky and the singular-sounding ensemble – I imagine this number would go down wonderfully well in any on- or off- Broadway show. Graceland is a hybrid text drawing on Carl Sandburg’s 1916 eponymous poem which satirises the gaps between rich and poor. Inevitably, given the title, the baritone convincingly apes Elvis, another longstanding preoccupation of the composer. Forbidden Fruit is another duet and takes its cue from Mark Twain’s reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve story. It’s another great tune whose arrangement evokes Peggy Lee’s signature hit ‘Fever’. Hot Air parodies the shock-jocks and fake-news merchants that populated AM radio before and during the war. Given that This Land Sings was first performed in 2016 one senses that the composer could read which way the wind was blowing. The spare arrangement enhances its chilling message. Bread and Roses is a touching setting for soprano and bassoon of a suffrage poem from 1911 by James Oppenheim. Socolofsky’s delivery really hits the mark – the bassoon accompaniment is unusual and remarkably effective.
The sequence pivots on the title number – essentially a longer, fuller arrangement of the brief overture. It also references, with a mournful clarinet, percussion and pizzicato violin accompaniment the folksong Wayfaring Stranger, which is reprised vocally in the finale. Thereafter vocal and instrumental items alternate. Silver Bullet incorporates wittily ironic lyrics by the composer into a very familiar tune – though Woody Guthrie would surely sympathise with the anti-NRA sentiments implied one can’t help but wonder if Daugherty himself wasn’t letting off a bit of steam here. This Trombone Kills Fascists is a spiky duet between trombone and percussion which references the message attached to Guthrie’s guitar – “This Machine Kills Fascists”. Don’t Sing Me a Love Song is unashamedly a pop number, a sad but acerbic duet (to another Daugherty lyric) in which the spurned girlfriend shrugs her acceptance of the troubador’s constant wanderings. The composer himself proves to be a mean harmonica player in the chilling instrumental lament My Heart is Burning; it commemorates the three unrelated accidental fires that occurred in Guthrie’s lifetime which saw off his sister, father and daughter. The folksong I’m Gonna Walk that Lonesome Valley was a Guthrie staple – Daugherty has taken the words and created a plaintive duet for baritone and clarinet; it exudes isolation and solitude. Mermaid Avenue is the longest instrumental piece in the sequence. It recalls the Coney Island home Guthrie set up with his second wife in the mid-1940s. Mermaid Avenue itself was at the heart of the local Jewish community, and an obvious klezmer flavour is rife in the gymnastic fiddle, trombone and clarinet parts. A bleak episode at its heart alludes to the illness which would ultimately kill him. The finale fuses two traditional Guthrie favourites, Wayfaring Stranger and 900 Miles in a duet in which Daugherty imagines the singer wandering towards the horizon, his trusty guitar strapped to his back. It’s both bluesy and ballsy and constitutes a spirited conclusion.
Michael Daugherty’s achievement in making this sequence is considerable. The tunes are unfailingly memorable, the layout allows for an atmospheric and comprehensive overview of Guthrie’s inspiriation and spirit which never feels tokenistic. In terms of the performance and recording both singers seem excellent – the success of the whole enterprise depends mightily on their versatility. The instrumental writing is colourful and expert – most impressive of all are the two songs accompanied by just bassoon and clarinet respectively, a salutary reminder for a composer who so often thinks ‘big’ that sometimes less is more. The Naxos recording is exceptional; the different ensembles are each balanced splendidly ensuring the voices are never overwhelmed.
In the seemingly dystopian atmosphere of mid-pandemic America, it seems unlikely that Daugherty’s work (or Guthrie’s radical spirit) will overturn those minds already entrenched by culture wars which seem frighteningly out of control. Even so, its release at this particular moment seems timely and potent, not least to those of us who live on the other side of the pond. Guthrie deals in universals, and we’re clearly not immune to similarly malign forces here. In any case, irrespective of any of that, Daugherty has turned out some darn fine tunes in This Land Sings.
1 Overture [1:02]*
2 The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill [5:19]
3 Perpetual Motion Man [2:58]
4 Marfa Lights [4:56]*
5 Hear the Dust Blow [4:03]
6 Graceland [3:06]
7 Forbidden Fruit [3:35]
8 Hot Air [2:33]
9 Bread and Roses [4:17]
10 This Land Sings [6:08]*
11 Silver Bullet [3:10]
12 This Trombone Kills Fascists [1:44]*
13 Don't Sing Me a Love Song [4:23]
14 My Heart Is Burning [2:52]*
15 I'm Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley [3:19]
16 Mermaid Avenue [7:02]*
17 Wayfaring Stranger [900 Miles] [6:17]
(* denotes an instrumental number)