Monday, July 9, 2012

Woody Guthrie – Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection

Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection
Smithsonian Folkways

Woody Guthrie, one the most important, most influential and most inspiring folksingers and songwriters of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago this week on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. It is with good reason that all those who have followed in his footsteps – and by that I mean virtually every singer and songwriter not bound up in navel-gazing – are referred to as “Woody’s Children.”

For the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth – he died October 3, 1967 after a 13-year hospitalization for Huntington’s disease – Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, a magnificent box set with three CDs of vintage recordings, including 21 previously unreleased performances, of which six are previously unheard original songs, and a beautiful 150-page book with essays, photos, Woody’s drawings, letters, original song lyrics, detailed information about each of the tracks, and fascinating listings of much of Woody Guthrie’s commercially available recordings and his known recording sessions. The project was assembled by archivist Jeff Place of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Robert Santelli, author of This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song.

My comments on the first two CDs will be brief as all of the songs will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to Woody Guthrie over the years. Indeed, I already have all of these songs and almost all of these recordings – including the version of “I’ve Got to Know” which was previously released only on Bear Family’s 10-CD collection, Songs for Political Action – in my collection.

(By the way, “I’ve Got to Know” comes from a collection of more than 200 demos that Woody recorded for his song publisher in 1951. Few of these recordings have ever been widely heard – I have to wonder if there’s a future release, à la Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos, in the pipeline.)

However, despite my familiarity, I will say that I’ve listened and re-listened to the first two CDs with great enjoyment. Like the My Dusty Road collection released in 2009, the sound quality on many of the recordings is greatly improved over previous releases, and the selection and sequencing is superbly done. Just a few of the highlights are “Jarama Valley,” Woody’s song about the Spanish Civil War; “Better World A-Comin’, a hopeful song that followed the defeat of fascism in World War II; “Hangknot, Slipknot,” inspired by a KKK lynching that took place near Woody’s hometown in Oklahoma a couple of years before he was born; “Jackhammer John”; “Pastures of Plenty”; “Hard Travelin’; and two versions of “This Land is Your Land,” his best-known song.

Woody wrote “This Land is Your Land” as a response or alternative to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and the two versions include the standard, universally-known version, and an alternate rendition which includes one of the two politicized verses – the one about private vs. public property; the other was about solidarity with the people waiting on breadlines during the Great Depression – which were, early on, edited out of the standard version.

Among the other highlights are Woody’s versions of songs he borrowed or adapted including “Buffalo Skinners,” “Gypsy Davy,” “Bad Lee Brown,” and “We Shall Be Free,” a 1940s folk-supergroup collaboration between Woody, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry.

Along with the book, it is the third CD in the Woody at 100 set which make it an essential item for Woody collectors.

The third CD begins with four songs comprising Woody’s earliest-known recording session. The recordings, dated 1937 (although essayist Peter LaChapelle makes the case that they were probably recorded in 1939) were made on a Presto disc-cutting machine in Los Angeles and include two songs, “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Do-Re-Mi,” which would later form part of the classic Woody Guthrie canon, and two others, “Them Big City Ways” and “Skid Row Serenade” which have never been released before in any form. All four of these songs reflect Woody’s concerns with the exploited underclass of migrant workers. And, in the introduction to “Them Big City Ways,” we get a taste of the Will Rogers-influenced philosophizing what Woody was doing on the radio in Los Angeles during this period.

Speaking of Woody on the radio, there are recordings of several radio shows on the disc. The earliest is Woody’s 1940 guest spot on Lead Belly’s WNYC show, Folk Songs of America. Woody sings three songs: the traditional outlaw ballads “John Hardy” and “Jesse James” and his epic “Tom Joad,” a seven-minute encapsulation of John Stenbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for which Woody used the melody and structure of “John Hardy” as his template.

The strangest of the radio shows is Woody’s appearance on the BBC Children’s Hour which took place in 1944 when Woody was put ashore in London when his Merchant Marine ship was torpedoed. The befuddled host, who was obviously unprepared, announced Woody was going to do a program of train songs. He began with “Wabash Cannonball” and “900 Miles,” which did fit the bill, but then shifted over to a couple of outlaw ballads, “Stagger Lee” and his own “Pretty Boy Floyd,” violent songs you might not expect to hear on a children’s show. Just a couple of years later, Woody was writing and singing some of the greatest kids’ songs ever heard – some of which are included in this collection.

The other radio show was a 1945 episode of The Ballad Gazette with Woody Guthrie on WNEW. On that show, Woody – referred to by the announcer as the show’s “editor-in-chief” – would do 15-minute medleys of songs on a particular theme. On this particular show, the theme was sea chanteys and was a mixture of traditional songs, including “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” “Blow Ye Winds” and “Blow the Man Down,” and three of Woody’s own songs: “Trouble on the Waters,” and “Normandy was Her Name,” both of which have never been previously released in any form, and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

I’m guessing that the brief “Trouble on the Waters” was probably inspired by Woody’s experiences in the Merchant Marine during World War II while “Normandy was Her Name” tells the story of a French ocean liner ship that was being refitted as an American troop ship when it sunk in New York Harbor in 1942 after a fire caused by a welder’s torch.

Another fascinating track is a nine-minute segment recorded at a People’s Songs Hootenanny, sometime between 1945 and 1947. Woody begins with his short knock-off “Ladies Auxiliary” and then engages in hilarious banter with former Almanac Singer and future Weaver Lee Hays before they sing “Weaver’s Life.” Another former Almanac Singer and future Weaver, Pete Seeger, can be heard playing banjo on the song.

The hootenanny track is followed by “Reckless Talk,” a Woody Guthrie war song from the early-1940s that has never been released before. This version, recorded in 1944, is a duet by Woody and Cisco Houston.

The album ends with three, fairly obscure, examples of the children’s songs Woody was writing after the war: “All Work Together,” “My Little Seed” and “Goodnight Little Cathy.” Woody’s recordings of “All Work Together” and “My Little Seed” were only previously released on a 78 rpm disc in the 1940s.

The previously-unreleased recording of the lullaby “Goodnight Little Cathy” was written for Woody’s daughter Cathy, who died in a tragic fire in 1947. He later remade the song as “Goodnight Little Arlo.”

I mentioned that the book and the third CD make Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection essential for Woody collectors. The entire set also makes for a great introduction for Woody novices to the great folksinger and songwriter.

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. I'm perplexed--how is it that "Dusty Roads" is not listed on the discography on p. 129 of the book?

    1. I noticed that too -- which is why I specifically said the listing was of "much of Woody Guthrie's commecially available recordings."

  2. A small correction, though of a commonly committed error:

    "What Did the Deep Sea Say?" is not a traditional song. It was written in the latter 1920s by prolific pop and hillbilly composer Bob Miller. Miller also wrote the convict ballad "21 Years," often taken for traditional as well.

    It's certainly true that both songs were written in the style of folk songs, and you could make the case that over time they _became_ folk songs. There's even a British variant of "21 Years," where the tale is taken out of Nashville and placed in Dartmoor.

    I realize that the relationship between commercial compositions and traditional songs is a complicated and thorny one, but it's clear in this case that "Deep Sea," like "21 Years," was not created -- unlike, say, "John Henry" and "John Hardy" -- at the grassroots.