GUTHRIE – Woody Guthrie – American Radical Patriot – Rounder Records II6619138-2 (Deluxe 6-CD set, DVD, 78 rpm record+hard cover book) *****:
Everybody thinks they know Woody Guthrie. He was that folk singer from the thirties and forties who sang about the Dust Bowl. He wrote “This Land is Your Land,” which literally hundreds of singers have covered (most without the inflammatory stanza about “Private Property”). A callow Bob Dylan visited him in the hospital as he lay stricken with Huntington’s Chorea. Many of today’s singers point to him as both influence and inspiration.
But did you know that he is probably the only popular singer who protested the rich and powerful and worked for the government for a spell? Or that he was recorded by the Library of Congress before the United States entered World War II? And an influential government agency shortly afterwards?
This impressive volume provides these and other missing gaps in Woody’s musical biography. It consists of six CDs, a DVD called Roll On Columbia: Woody Guthrie & the Bonneville Power Administration (1999) about Woody’s one-month stint writing songs for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) on the Columbia River. A unique treat is the inclusion of a 78-rpm record containing Woody’s “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done” and his “VD City,” sung by Bob Dylan on The Minnesota Hotel Recordings (1961). It’s a real hoot listening to both sides, if you still have 78 rpm capability on your turntable. It has that nostalgic 78 rpm hiss that lately has been so skillfully removed by restoration experts in many rereleased records.
Physically, the book is designed in two styles at once. Its black, gold-letter embossed spine resembles the binders that 78 rpm records came in when they were part of a set. The front has a marbled finish that resembles a personal journal with an old label pasted on the front reading “Woody Guthrie, AMERICA RADICAL PATRIOT” in a distressed typing font. It’s a low- key attribute to Woody’s modest roots and it works.
The hour-long documentary is well done, including much archival footage of the Columbia River dam project and talking head interviews with two of Guthrie’s children (Nora and Arlo) as well as men Guthrie worked with and under. Its production values are PBS quality, similar to an episode of The American Experience. It is competent and eminently watchable, but frankly, a little wooden. (There was an American Masters documentary about Woody Guthrie, Ain’t Got No Home (2006), which was a bit more creative in its usage of photographs and so on.) Some extras would have been nice, like complete music videos of some of Guthrie’s songs instead of just snippets.
The CDs are not only important historical documents, but fascinating listens. Recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax, they feature in-depth interviews of Guthrie by Lomax and his wife Elizabeth (who speaks on Disc 4). Because Guthrie’s songs conveniently occur at every other cut, you may be tempted to skip the interviews and just upload the songs to your MP3 player. Don’t do it! The interviews contain stunning revelations about Guthrie’s life (rough) and childhood (short), his working methods (he wrote deeply poetic lyrics but often shamelessly “adapted” melodies from others’ songs), and his desperado sympathies (he liked Jesse James and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd). Sometimes the interviews seem a bit set up (“Did they sing about the boll weevil out there, Woody?”), but other times Guthrie just rambles on entertainingly, as if performing a bar set, and effortlessly leads into his songs.
But what about the quality of these 74-year old recordings? Back in the mid-sixties, I and many of my contemporaries bought copies of RCA Victor’s 1940 release, Dust Bowl Ballads. Although Guthrie’s singing voice was in prime form on this recording, the reproduction on the LP was bad, as it was just scratchy transfers from 78 rpm records. For years that was the only kind of material that listeners had of Woody Guthrie. Then in 2008 more old recordings surfaced and Live Wire was released, a live Woody Guthrie concert recorded on a wire recorder. Nora (who won a Grammy for it) wryly commented, “It’s very strange, but the more time goes by, the clearer Woody’s voice sounds.” The current volume is no exception. Engineers arduously cleaned up the sound and the results are impressive. There is no scratchiness and Woody’s songs come through loud and clear, as if being broadcast on a modern radio station.
On Disc 1 there is an expanded version of the text in the hardcover book and it contains material like transcriptions of all Woody’s interviews with Alan and Elizabeth Lomax. Unfortunately it’s a pdf file, so it doesn’t display very well on a Kindle or Nook. (You’ll need to convert it with the Calibre program if you want to read it on such devices.)
Don’t bother scanning the disc titles for “This Land is Your Land.” After writing it, Woody didn’t think too much of it and put it away for four years, so it wasn’t released until 1945.
If you are a history teacher, you owe it to your students to petition your school to buy this set. And if you’re a student of folk music history, what are you waiting for?