Woody Guthrie has been a source of inspiration to countless legions of songwriters over the years, both when he was alive and today, nearly 13 years since his death.
Some have tried to slavishly adopt his accent and his lifestyle, while others seek to imitate his unique style of songwriting. Most songwriters have failed to capture even a small part of the Guthrie magic, although a few have succeeded in one way or another. One of these songwriters composing today in the Woody Guthrie tradition, but remaining true to himself and his times, is Charlie Maguire.
This Charlie Maguire, who hails from the Midwestern part of America, writes all sorts of songs. Among this variety of topics are truck drivers, coal miners, migratory workers, dairy farmers, and people who get babies to go to sleep. The latter is probably the hardest work of all.
Anyway, Charlie's tunes are mostly about real people, places, and events, so naturally you can't expect to hear them on the radio or the TV. The best way to hear Charlie Maguire and his songs is in person; but since there's only one Charlie and so many folks who should hear him, that's a bit of a problem. The next best thing is listening to his new record.
Eleven of Charlie's best compositions have been released on the Train on the Island label, which has acquired a roster full of talented musicians in its short existence. The lp is entitled Long Way to Another Friend, and it features Maguire singing and playing guitar and harmonica, solo, and managing to do that very well.
Opening the album is a piece called "Gypsy Woody," which is obviously a tribute to the Oklahoma balladeer. It's a beautiful song which at least equals, if not surpasses, the two other outstanding songs honoring Woody Guthrie, Dylan's "Song to Woody" and Phil Ochs' "Bound For Glory."
Maguire's composition recalls Guthrie's free-wheeling life and his great love for this land and its inhabitants. The chorus is so catchy that you won't be able to resist singing along, and Maguire cleverly ends with a brief bit of "This Land" on harmonica.
One of Guthrie's songs also figures in another of the compositions here. An excellent narrative piece, "The Ballad of Augie Mattsen," details a later episode in the life of one of the survivors of the infamous 1913 Massacre in Calumet, Michigan.
It seems that about a dozen years after the incident, one of the participants named Augie Mattsen, was involved in union organizing in Ironwood, Michigan. A cave-in at one of the mines trapped 25 men beneath the ground. The company owner offered a thousand dollars to anyone who would attempt to rescue the men.
Augie Mattsen bravely offered to go down into the mine; he went down and brought back 20 of the men who were still alive. He also refused the reward, asking that it go to the families of the five dead men.
The company honored him with a gold medal and promised him a job for life. But in an ironic twist at the end of the ballad, Matsen is driven away from his home and his "job for life" because he tried to organize a union to improve the lives of his fellow workers.
Despite his good deed, Augie Mattsen became a threat to the company; therefore he became expendable. Maguire's song tells the story straightforwardly in true ballad fashion, evoking sympathy for Mattsen and anger at the great injustice done to him.
In a lighter vein, "Mack White" could be called the anthem of all those crazy truck drivers on the highway. It's full of tall tales and loaded with images of miles of road traveled, greasy food at truck stops, and gallons of beer consumed.
Another occupational song, full of images of a vastly different sort, is "Getting in the Cows." Since Charlie Maguire was born and raised on a dairy farm, he speaks with experience of his cow-milking days. It's a neat song about a subject most folks would just as soon sing about without actually doing the work described.
Fortunately, for those of us who like good music, Charlie no longer milks cows for a living but writes good songs like these wherever he can instead.
There are several other memorable songs on this disc. They include "The Strike is On," which details the hardships endured through a lengthy strike; " When's That Train A'Coming," Maguire's farewell to the vanishing passenger train; and "The Teton Dam." The latter tells how faulty construction on a dam resulted in the deaths of 10 people and the flooding of two towns. Parallels to that incident, in which profit comes before peoples lives, can be observed in many areas of American life today. Concluding the record is a beautifully written lullaby, "Goodnight Baby."
It's safe to assume that if Woody Guthrie were around today and he happened to stumble onto Charlie Maguire and his songs, he'd probably say something like, "That fellow is pretty damned good." Proof of that statement can be heard by listening to Charlie's first record.
-- Jim Capaldi
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