WHETHER or not Woody Guthrie was the greatest US folk singer, and there is a compelling case to be made that he might have been, his influence on pretty much all American music that is even remotely similar to folk music, whether by root or fruit, remains incalculable. Indeed, given the way US music shaped that of the wider world during the second half of the 20th century, the same might almost be claimed in respect of all English-language music that calls itself folk without being specifically traditional. Dozens of his songs, typically set to melodies already in the public domain, have become indispensable to a folk music vernacular that ranges far beyond the constraints of what most of us consider popular music.
His most famous song, This Land Is Your Land, written, ironically, with a wide streak of socialism in its soul, via verses that are seldom sung anymore, is widely regarded as the alternative US national anthem.
His Library of Congress recordings of March 1940, long thought to be his first, and the Dust Bowl Ballads that he recorded for RCA a month later, about the Oklahomans displaced to California by the huge dust storms that drove them west in the mid 1930s, are among the most compelling, and important, in US music.
But by far the majority of Guthrie’s recordings were made for Moe Asch, founder of the renowned Folkways label, most of them in one amazing week in April 1944.
Barely believably, more than 50, mainly of traditional material but including a couple of all-time Guthrie classics, were made on one day. Guthrie epitomises what has become the populist ideal of the rambling, hoboing, freight-hopping folk singer, singing songs of, for and even by the people with his finger firmly up the nose of the establishment, but it is the songs that maintain his iconic status.
That these were recorded at so few recording sessions more or less within a single decade, before the debilitating illness from which he would eventually die in 1967 took hold, signifies how they have always transcended musical fashion while continuing to be socially relevant.
Smithsonian Folkways, the current owner of the Asch archive, would have been expected to come up with something special for this years centennial of Guthrie’s birth in Okemah, Oklahoma just three months after the year’s other great centenary event, the sinking of the Titanic. They did.
Woody At 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection consists of three CDs superbly presented in a coffee table-sized hardcover book containing a number of evocative photos, many examples of the artist’s drawings, letters and lyric sheets, a number of excellent essays and plenty of historical detail. Nothing is perfect and neither is this. For example, despite what you will read there, labour organiser Joe Hill could not have believed that Sacco and Vanzetti, the immigrant Italian anarchists of Guthrie’s song Two Good Men, had been framed for the crime for which they were executed, because he himself had been executed nearly five years before that crime was even committed.
But that is a minor criticism given the riches on show.
The 45-song compilation that make up the first two discs might have been slightly differently selected by another compiler.
That’s always the case. But this is carefully chosen to provide a fascinating overview of a man who wrote patriotic songs as stirring as his political ones were incisively critical, and children’s songs as playfully affecting as his socially penetrating ones were scathingly truthful.
The third disc is made up of rare material, often from radio broadcasts, including four unreleased 1937 recordings that are now the earliest we have. The honesty, humility and, especially, the simple humanity at the heart of every song continues to astound.