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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Woody Guthrie, “American Radical Patriot”

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Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot CoverThe title of Rounder Records’ new box set describes its subject, Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), as an American Radical Patriot.  Especially in today’s politically-polarized times, some might find those words a contradiction in terms.  But in the late folk troubadour’s world, very little was black-and-white.  It’s that world which is explored in such depth in this lavish new collection, a limited edition of 5,000 units.  American Radical Patriot (Rounder 11661-9138-2) not only proves why Guthrie matched that label, but does so by presenting music that very few have ever heard and placing it into the context of not just his extraordinary career, but of American history itself.

Over six discs, one DVD, one 78 RPM disc and a packed, 60-page hardcover book (with even more written content available in digital form), the producers at The Woody Guthrie Foundation have comprehensively compiled the material that the late songwriter and activist recorded for the U.S. government – both spoken and sung.  It brings together both the songs and stories he recorded for the Library of Congress, and the music he crafted for the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency based in the Pacific Northwest.  Though the Library recordings have been issued before, this box represents the first time that the complete, unedited sessions have been released.  As if that wasn’t enough, the set also includes songs and two radio dramas recorded by Guthrie for the Office of War Information during World War II, and another drama offered to public health agencies to curb the spread of venereal disease.  Though its purview is much more limited, this is the perfect companion to last year’s similarly-impressive, career-spanning Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection from Smithsonian Folkways.  It also deserves a spot on the shelf next to Legacy’s recent Woody Guthrie at 100: Live at the Kennedy Center, which showed Guthrie’s lasting influence on future generations of socially-conscious performing talent.

The first four discs of American Radical Patriot are dedicated to the complete Library of Congress recordings, primarily recorded by historian Alan Lomax.  These sessions, which commenced in March 1940 at Washington, DC’s Department of the Interior, were the 27-year old Guthrie’s first recordings with the exception of four airchecks made for Los Angeles’ radio station KFVD (included on Woody at 100).  Lomax intended these sessions to form a kind of musical autobiography, and Guthrie followed Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton and Aunt Molly Jackson in Lomax’s series.  Within one month of Guthrie’s first Library session, he was commercially recording for RCA Victor, and his final session for the Library of Congress took place in January, 1941.  A three-hour distillation of these tapes was first released to the public by Elektra in 1964 and reissued by Rounder in 1998.  Here, then, are the complete and unexpurgated tapes, running five hours in length.   Though Guthrie was just 27, he came with a wealth of experience as a musician, radio personality and humorist.  One of the thousands of Oklahomans (or Okies) who migrated to California in the Dust Bowl era, he was well-known as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”  These tapes are living history, but they’re also vibrantly entertaining.  Lomax introduces the artist as “about 30 years old from the looks of him, but he’s seen more in those thirty years than most men see before they’re 70.”

Guthrie accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica, singing his own Dust Bowl songs, his adaptations of folk traditionals, and songs learned from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family.  These are interspersed with dialogue in seemingly casual conversation with Lomax.  In his populist drawl, Guthrie reflects on his difficult Okemah, Oklahoma upbringing and strained family life in direct but plain-spoken terms, not shying away from frankly addressing the issues of racial and social inequality that weighed so heavily upon him.  These recordings offer as complete a picture of Guthrie as has ever been drawn, although his political opinions were naturally shifting and evolving over time.  The box’s enclosed book (also available in a greatly-expanded 256-page form as a PDF on the first CD here) is recommended reading while listening; it attempts to answer questions that still elude even Guthrie’s biggest devotees such as “What was it that Woody Guthrie truly believed?” and “Woody Guthrie: communist or ‘commonist’?”  Perhaps these questions can never truly be answered in conclusive fashion.  The book even cites one historian who found that Guthrie had some conservative views!  And let’s not forget that Guthrie served for over one year in the Merchant Marine and was honorably discharged after serving in the United State Army, as well.  American Radical Patriot certainly comes close, however, as a definitive chronicle of a key period in his life.

Lomax discusses Guthrie’s personal history as well as his musical history, probing him about how his interest in music began and how he learned to become a musician.  Guthrie frequently illustrates or punctuates his lengthy spoken recollections with music, and when recording for RCA in April 1940, he re-recorded a number of the songs he played for Lomax.  These songs have retained much of their power, and when listening to tracks like “Greenback Dollar,” it’s impossible not to notice just how much of Guthrie’s style of delivery and phrasing was appropriated by the young Bob Dylan.  Ironically, RCA concentrated on Guthrie’s more explicitly political songs, while the Library of Congress recordings featured a wide range of material harkening back to Guthrie’s youth – all part of Lomax’s quest to have a well-rounded portrait in music and word of his subject.

Guthrie tackles jailhouse songs, Dust Bowl songs, Depression songs, outlaw songs, railroad blues, and even a square dance tune over the course of these first four discs.  He made his own songs like “The Midnight Special,” “Stewball” and “Stagger Lee,” all songs which are still well-known today.  Guthrie also invokes his friend John Steinbeck, who so eloquently put the Dust Bowl experience into prose.  His reminiscence leading into “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” – about “the end of the world,” “what is right, what is wrong” and the mistreatment of humans at the hands of their fellow men – is bone-chilling.  His great empathy and common touch are both particularly evident.

After the jump, there’s much more on Woody!

Woody Guthrie American Radical PatriotDisc Five presents Guthrie’s recordings for the Bonneville Power Administration along with three of his songs for the war effort.  Alan Lomax was a key player in bringing Guthrie to the attention of the BPA, founded in 1937 and part of the Department of the Interior.  The administration’s chief, Stephen B. Kahn, wanted to better publicize the work that the BPA had been doing in the Pacific Northwest to provide public power.  Kahn worried about Guthrie’s reputation as a “lefty” but forged ahead with Lomax’s recommendation to hire him, asking the songwriter only to refrain from singing about politics.  For his part, Woody was genuinely fired up about seeing his government in action to provide jobs and help people’s lives.  The assignment inspired him as an artist, and he created a collection of original songs celebrating public power, the Grand Coulee Dam, and his surroundings.

Recorded in Portland, these songs weren’t released to the public until 1987.  The BPA utilized three of them in a 1949 film entitled The Columbia; Guthrie recalled them being used in meetings to drum up war bond sales.  Though these songs are topical and specific, they’re nonetheless enjoyable.  All of the surviving songs are included here.  The Columbia River (the largest river in the Pacific Northwest) in particular set his creative juices flowing with compositions like “Roll On, Columbia,” “Talking Columbia,” “Roll, Columbia Roll” and “Columbia’s Waters.”  His ode to the “Grand Coulee Dam” (based on the 19th century folk song “Wabash Cannonball”) had a future life when Lonnie Donegan turned it into a skiffle hit in 1958.  He also penned “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam,” a wholly different song with a melody reminiscent of “On Top of Old Smokey.”  Following the BPA tracks, the box set presents three songs recorded by Guthrie on May 14, 1942 for the Office of War Information’s Here’s News from Home program, including the stirring “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

Disc Six picks up with more of Guthrie’s music recorded for the OWI’s wartime radio broadcasts.    Guthrie co-wrote a pro-union musical drama entitled The Girl in the Red, White and Blue which dramatized “legendary heroes of American labor” like Paul Bunyan and John Henry.  Other performances have been culled from the NBC Saturday night series Labor for Victory and from Jazz in America, “one of a series of programs telling the story of jazz and the lives of the men who created it…Here in a democratic country, the spotlight falls on a people’s music.”  Guthrie’s songs weren’t jazz, but certainly were the people’s music.  Songs like “Whoopy Ti-Yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler” are tantalizing might-have-beens; according to the liner notes, Guthrie proposed to record songs for the war effort for a commercial label, but both RCA and Columbia turned him down.  American Radical Patriot rights that wrong with the issue of all of this fascinating rare material.

The box continues with Guthrie’s previously unissued home V.D. Song Demos.  In 1949, syphilis was a major scourge, and Surgeon General Leonard A. Scheele was eager to combat its spread.  Woody wanted to join the Surgeon General’s crusade, and penned many new songs to be used in propaganda efforts.  He also reached back into his own songbook for 1945’s “V.D. Gunner Blues.”  He demoed his rather pointed songs at home (“These V.D. Blues…the worst old blues I’ve had!”) and although they weren’t released at the time, he did participate in another radio drama.  It began with an announcement that “your health department presents The Lonesome Traveler starring Woody Guthrie as Rusty, The Traveler.”  Written and directed by Alan Lomax, it includes both skits and music, and was in fact produced by Columbia University’s Communication Materials Center.  The intent of the play was simple: to educate listeners about getting medical treatment for venereal disease.  As an interesting side note, the V.D. material came to the attention of one of Guthrie’s young disciplines, the former Robert Zimmerman.  Bob Dylan’s 1961 “Minnesota Hotel Recording” of Woody’s “V.D. City” is included on 78 RPM record as a special treat here, backed with Guthrie’s home demo of “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” from The Lonesome Traveler.

Another integral component of this exhaustive package is a DVD containing the hour-long film Roll On Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Administration.  The 1999 documentary will only deepen one’s understanding of this still relatively-unknown period of the late folksinger’s career.  Interview subjects range from Studs Terkel and Pete Seeger to BPA personnel, and much of Guthrie’s music from the period is featured in the film.

American Radical Patriot is designed as a hardbound book and is worthy of coffee-table placement, should you wish your living room conversation to turn to the profound.    It goes without saying that the 60 pages of text and photographs (complete with detailed annotations) is indispensable, but diehards will want to read the longer PDF version for total immersion in this period of American history.  Paul Blakemore at CMG Mastering has done a fine job restoring the audio on the box set; though certain songs are in better audio quality than others, it’s surprising just how good some of this material sounds.  Webster’s defines a patriot as “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.”  While Woody Guthrie was frequently at odds with his government, that description is still an apt one.  The dichotomy that fueled so much of his greatest music has never been as vividly presented as on American Radical Patriot.

You can order American Radical Patriot at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

December 16, 2013 at 15:17

One Response

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  1. Regarding the bonus 78RPM record:

    I cannot get accurate information on whether this 78RPM was cut as “microgroove” or the traditional wide-groove 78RPM standard. Microgroove requires an LP stylus (most common), the 78 standard groove requires a much wider diameter 78 stylus. If you use the wrong stylus, it not only affects sound quality, but you can either destroy the stylus (by using and LP stylus on wide groove), or damage the record (by using a 78 stylus on microgroove)

    This applies to some of the other special product 78s being released, like the Michael Hurley 78. Even the manufacturer could not tell me the groove cut.

    Does any 78 expert out there know about this 78 or the Michael Hurley 78?


    December 17, 2013 at 15:03

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