Like many bluegrass fans of a certain age, I came to it by way of folk music. Although steeped in Fifties rock and roll, I was caught up in the charms of The Kingston Trio and the idea that unamplified acoustic instruments could support songs that seemed instantly singable; mine was a generation that wanted to replicate what we heard, not just listen to it. (High school boys’ rooms had acoustics that did wonders for doo-wop harmonies.) The arrival of Bob Dylan led me (and others) to move beyond the slick pop of Peter, Paul and Mary et al. and to explore the sources of Dylan’s pre-electric work—and that led, inevitably, to his greatest influence, Woody Guthrie.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would have turned 100 last July 14th. To honor that centennial, The Smithsonian has released a three-disc compilation of his work, including never-before-heard recordings from the late 1930’s, when he was working for a radio station in California. Although each disc is jam-packed—57 tracks, comprising 65 songs—the set doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Guthrie penned thousands of songs over his career; he claimed at one point that he wrote two or three ballads every day before breakfast. (“Penned” is the appropriate word, in that he wrote only lyrics, not notation.) The selections are representative, though, reflecting his passionate concern for workers and the downtrodden.
The chosen songs range from unofficial anthems of Americana such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” and “Hobo’s Lullaby” to lesser-known works: “Talking Centralia,” “The Ranger’s Command,” “Buffalo Skinners,” and more, some appearing here for the first time. The first disc emphasizes the iconic songs, but here, too, there are welcome additions. “This Land is Your Land,” of course, is included—but not only the widely-known version we all learned in grammar school, but also the alternate version, with the verses we never learned in music class:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
The second disc features lesser-known recordings, including a revised version of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” modified to apply to World War II, and “Lindbergh,” a scathing indictment of Lindy’s America First movement and his alleged sympathies with Hitler.
“Pastures of Plenty”
“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”
The final disc contains some rare gems, including three fifteen-minute radio programs from the 1940’s, one of which is from the BBC Children’s Hour, recorded in 1944 after Woody’s Merchant Marine ship was torpedoed and he found himself in England. The contrast between the Received English diction of the very proper hostess (“and now, children, Mr. Guthrie is going to sing for us”) and Guthrie’s down-to-earth speech is a delight. The disc also has the only example of Woody singing with The Almanac Singers, at a People’s Songs Hootenanny. My one complaint about the collection is the under-representation of the group, which provided my first direct contact with Guthrie by way of a ten-inch LP, Talking Union, borrowed from a high school friend. (two members of that group, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, went on to form The Weavers, who in turn inspired The Kingston Trio. Here we are, back to the beginning!)
Other treasures set include a dozen or so duets with his friend (and fellow Merchant Marine) Cisco Houston. The “brothers” harmonies and the addition of a second instrument reveal another side of Woody’s musicality. For two tracks, “Better World A-Comin’ ” and “We Shall Be Free,” Woody and Cisco are joined by Sonny Terry on vocals and harmonica. The last track in the collection is particularly poignant: “Goodnight Little Cathy,” a scratchy, barely audible home recording of a lullaby for his six-year-old daughter, made a year before she died in a fire.
The set includes a 150-page hard-cover book with an essay by Robert Santelli and extensive notes on the songs by Jeff Place. Regrettably, I had access only to the recordings; the liner notes would have been extremely helpful.
I strongly recommend Woody at 100. There are longer collections, notably Smithsonian/Folkways’ 105-track, 4-volume Asch Recordings, issued in the late 90’s, but this set provides a very vivid look at a giant of American culture, whose social concerns are as pertinent today as they were all those years ago.