The New York City of Woody Guthrie’s day, when lines of wash wafted from the back windows of tenements and children played handball in the streets, has long vanished. But a glimpse of that era – colored by Woody’s romantic feeling for a woman whose face shone up from those streets, to paraphrase his lyric – has come back to life, in a first-time-ever recording by Mike & Ruthy, the talented and exceptionally energetic folk duo formerly of the Mammals (whose third member was Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, a grandson of Pete Seeger). Woody’s daughter Nora invited Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar, daughter of Jay Ungar and folksinger Lyn Hardy, to finish and record the song, which is titled “My New York City” – one of many previously unrecorded songs excavated from the Woody Guthrie Archive.
They recorded it with bassist Jacob Silver and drummer Robin Macmillan in Silver and Macmillan’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft, which has been converted into an analog recording studio; the seven-inch vinyl records are released under the imprint Media Blitz Record Company. The session spawned others, with the four musicians eventually recording six additional songs, comprising Mike & Ruthie’s new CD titled The NYC EP.
To celebrate the new recording, which will be released on April 17, the duo is performing at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, located on 36 Tinker Street, on March 10 at 8 p.m. Sarah Lee Guthrie, as well as Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton, who have adopted the stage names Ida and You Are My Flower, will also perform at the gig. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for Byrdcliffe members.
“My New York City” will also be included on a new four-CD collection of Woody’s New York songs. Titled My Name Is New York, the collection includes recordings by Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. It will be released in June.
Known for their dual-harmony singing and spirited arsenal of fiddle, banjo, guitar and ukulele, Mike & Ruthy capture the old-timey Americana of decades past, when singing and playing music were interwoven into ordinary lives, from rural kitchens to the workingman’s saloon. The two musicians seem to embody that freewheeling spirit of a simpler era in their own lives: The arrangement of “Romance in the Dark” – another song on their new CD, which was written in 1940 by Chicago blues singer Lil Green – was worked out on the uke and harmonica in a borrowed Mercury Grand Marquis during a trip from Seattle to Calgary last March, while another song, “Toast My Memory,” was rehearsed in the car on a trip to Brooklyn from their home in the Catskills. Special moments from daily life serve as creative touchstones: To cite one example, “Oh Mama” was inspired by the time the couple’s son Will, now four, wouldn’t go to sleep.
The new recording of Guthrie’s romantic homage to New York is just one of the events planned this year in celebration of his 100th birthday, both in the US and across the Pond. In September Mike & Ruthy will be performing alongside many other stellar musicians at one such event: a gala in Brooklyn. For more information, visit www.woody100.com. For more information about Mike & Ruthy, plus samples of their music, visit https://mikeandruthy.com.