Monday, September 21, 2009

Woody Guthrie -- My Dusty Road

My Dusty Road

In 1944, in a six-day recording marathon while home from the merchant marine, Woody Guthrie recorded about 250 songs, some solo and lots with backup from fellow folksinger and merchant marine buddy Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry, the great blues harmonica player. They recorded Woody’s songs as well as traditional folksongs in his repertoire and songs he picked up from various sources like the Carter Family or the Delmore Brothers.

Because of a contract dispute between Moe Asch and a business partner named Bob Harris, many of the recordings have been issued and reissued many times on Asch’s Folkways Records and later on Smithsonian Folkways, as well as Harris’ Stinson label and a multitude of other labels over the years who have licensed the Stinson recordings. Back in the early years of CD reissues, I reviewed a bunch of Stinson albums, including ones with a lot of Guthrie material, in Sing Out! Magazine.

Several years ago, some pristine Stinson masters from those sessions were discovered and they allow us to hear Woody with an unprecedented sound quality. This 4-CD set presents 54 songs from those sessions, including six tracks that have never been released before. Although I’ve been listening to previous releases of most of this material for most of my life, listening to this set is almost like hearing Woody and these songs for the first time.

The four CDs are programmed thematically.

The first disc, Woody’s “Greatest” Hits, includes many of Woody’s best known classics including such essential songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” “Jesus Christ” and “Hard Travelin’.” There is also a previously unreleased original called “Bad Repetation.”

The second disc, Woody’s Roots, is filled with traditional folksongs like “Stackolee” and “John Henry”; Carter Family songs like “Worried Man Blues” and “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”; and cowboy songs like “Chisholm Trail” and Woody’s definitive version of “Buffalo Skinners.”

The third disc, Woody the Agitator, includes many of Woody’s union songs like “Gonna Roll the Union On” and “Union Burying Ground”; anti-discrimination songs like “Hangknot, Slipknot” and “Harriet Tubman’s Ballad,” a tribute to the great conductor of the Underground Railroad; and Second World War rallying songs like “Tear the Fascists Down” and “When the Yanks Go Marching In.” The set includes the previously-unreleased “You Can Hear My Whistle Blow,” inspired by Woody and Cisco’s wartime service in the merchant marine.

The final disc, Woody, Cisco and Sonny, features the three combining on a set of traditional songs, country instrumentals and hoedown tunes. There are three previously unreleased tracks in this set including, “Guitar Rag,” the infectious instrumental usually known as “Steel Guitar Rag,” but here featuring Woody and Cisco banging their guitars and Sonny blowing hard on his harp,” “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” a great old Delmore Brothers song from the 1930s, and “Sonn’s Flight,” a harmonica tune with Sonny front and centre.

My Dusty Road is a vitally important Woody Guthrie collection.

A personal note: The centrality of Sonny Terry to these recordings reminds me that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were the first people I ever got to know who also knew Woody. I had become fascinated with Woody and when I was 15 or 16, in 1969 or ’70, they were playing a four- or five-night gig at the Back Door in Montreal. On the first or second night I told them I was interested in hearing about Woody and they sat with me several times that week talking about Woody and themselves in the 1940s. Unfortunately, when I produced some concerts for them in 1977, they would no longer sit in the same room together, except on stage.

--Mike Regenstreif

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