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.