Many credit Billy Bragg and Wilco with being the first to take words from the archives of Woody Guthrie and set them to music. Their Mermaid Avenue collaboration drew deserved acclaim, but Austin’s Slaid Cleaves probably beat them to the concept by a couple of years.
In early 1992, said singer-songwriter was still new to town, having just moved from Maine. Always looking for new talent, Greg Johnson, who now runs Oklahoma City’s Blue Door venue, invited Cleaves to perform at his second annual Woody Guthrie tribute show.
“I thought, ‘This is my chance to impress people,’” recalls the celebrated local. “All the great Woody songs would be taken by Ray Wylie [Hubbard], Lucinda [Williams], Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale [Gilmore], who were all there. My wife Karen had just bought me Woody’s book Pastures of Plenty. So I found ‘This Morning I Am Born Again,’ put it to music, and played it at that gig.
“I sent a copy to Harold Leventhal, who was in charge of Woody’s estate at the time, asking for permission [to record it]. I didn’t hear from him for two years. Jimmy LaFave lobbied for me with Woody’s daughter Nora, who was taking over from Harold. Jimmy claims that Nora told him I was the first person to do that and she had to convince Leventhal that it was a good idea.”
A memorable moment for the song came at the 2006 MerleFest. Cleaves was performing with LaFave – who appears at the One World alongside Eliza Gilyson and Sam Baker – and some friends, one of whom happened to be Guthrie associate Pete Seeger.
“I did that with Pete standing right next to me, thinking I was going to get a banjo upside the head because I was taking too much liberty with Woody’s words. But he was cool with it.”– Jim Caligiuri