One of America’s most influential folksingers, Woody Guthrie called himself “writer, composer, musician.” There’s no question that he made significant contributions in all three categories, even though he didn’t read or write standard music notation and usually just put his own lyrics to old folk melodies. There’s no questioning his social conscience and desire to use music to foster social and political change. He had a keen ability to capture the ethos of our nation, sentiments of its people, and poetic reflections about places that his wanderlust took him.
Born of a pioneering stock in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, Guthrie once documented the occasion in his own words, according to Ray M. Lawless’ 1968 book entitled Folksingers and Folksongs in America: “But will I name the place?, And month and year and date?, Bastille’s Day, July Fourteen; My hour was getting late; Nineteen and Twelve, Okemah; Oklahoma’s my blood state.”
Guthrie started singing at age four. While in high school, his father’s real estate business failed, his sister died in a coal oil stove explosion, and his mother was committed to an asylum. Guthrie traveled America during the ’30s in search of work, often working as a painter by day and singer by night. His rambles took him from California to New York, and then back and forth again. For most of his life, he wrote “two or three ballads before breakfast every morning” according to his close friend Cisco Houston. Thus, the 57 tracks on these three CDs are only a sampling of his thousands. Many of his songs only exist today as lyric sheets.
The nice thing about this centennial collection is that it includes songs from those key milestones in Woody’s life. Based on his observations of migrant workers, a song like “Ramblin’ Round” is but one of the 26 that Guthrie wrote during his employment by Bonneville Power Administration in 1941. During WWII, Guthrie entered the Merchant Marines with Cisco Houston. After being torpedoed and put ashore in England, Guthrie made a July 1944 appearance singing train songs on BBC’s Children’s Hour. The Smithsonian apparently found this track on a cassette tape in their voluminous collection.
After returning to New York in the ’40s, Guthrie formed the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell. In this collection, Guthrie appears on only one cut with Seeger, Hays, and others at a hootenanny staged between 1945-47 for People’s Songs, an organization that created, promoted and distributed songs of labor and the American people.
The 14 songs in this collection that Guthrie recorded with Houston (e.g. “Philadelphia Lawyer,” “New York Town,” “Going Down the Road,” “Hard, Ain’t It Hard,” “Better World A-Comin’”) are particularly enjoyable with their brother duet sound including two or more instruments and vocal harmony. Sonny Terry joins in on harmonica on “Going Down the Road” and “We Shall Be Free.” The only error I found in the collection’s liner notes is that the mandolin player (presumably Guthrie) was not credited on “Hard, Ain’t It Hard.”
The 154-page book includes essays (by Robert Santelli and Jeff Place), copious song notes, photos, many examples of Woody’s own artwork, a discography, a list of recording sessions, and a suggested reading list. I wonder, however, what Guthrie would have said about the book being printed in China when so many are out of work in the U.S. The songs are drawn from recording sessions, radio shows, and even a few jam sessions that took place in the studio of Moses Asch, who recorded and shared much of Guthrie’s music on the Folkways label which was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. Twenty-one of these cuts are previously unreleased performances, and six are original songs that have never been heard before.
Woody at 100 is a highly recommended collection to commemorate a man who so eloquently wrote poignant music about our great country and its beauty, but also about its afflictions and despair. And don’t think that Guthrie’s songs are nothing more than antiquated relics of a bygone era. Rather, his relevant music still touches and moves us today because of a continuing need for social change to make America an even better place.