st year was the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, and the occasion was marked by a number of new releases and reissues, including “Woody At 100,” a three-disc box from Smithsonian Folkways that contained a wealth of previously unreleased selections, and “My Dusty Road,” a four-disc box from Rounder that focused on Guthrie’s mid-forties recordings. Now Rounder returns to celebrate Guthrie’s somewhat less momentous hundred and first birthday, with “American Radical Patriot.” Featuring six CDs and a DVD housed in a hardbound package, the set is as large as the other two combined.
It also has a specific charter: to collect the various songs that Guthrie made for the American government. The best place to start is where “American Radical Patriot” does: the Library of Congress recordings. Alan Lomax, then a young musicologist and oral historian, began an annual ritual of collecting songs and stories from the country’s most important and colorful musicians: he kicked off, in 1938, with Jelly Roll Morton, moved on to Leadbelly in 1939, ran tape on Guthrie in March of 1940, and wrapped up with Muddy Waters, down on Stovall’s Plantation, in 1941. All are major works of both musicology and oral history, especially the Morton recordings, a staggering act of informal jazz scholarship as told by a man who was present for the creation. (They were released in full in 2005, in a massive eight-disc Rounder box.)
Guthrie’s sessions don’t quite live up to Morton’s, but they have their own charms and limits. The sound quality on the musical performances can be rough—the microphone sometimes seems only relatively near Guthrie’s face—and so listeners interested solely in songcraft might be best served elsewhere, particularly “Dust Bowl Ballads,” which RCA Victor recorded in New York City later that year, and the Asch recordings of 1944 and 1945. But the Library of Congress material is absolutely vital for other reasons. Along with John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” it is one of the single greatest resources for understanding Depression-era Oklahoma: how the pioneer spirit reacted when confronted with crushing poverty. It is also the first comprehensive articulation of Guthrie’s wise-rambler persona. He had already been on the radio at KFVD, in Los Angeles, where he began to make the transition from traditional country and folk music to more pointed political material, and the Library of Congress sessions reveal that he had a broadcaster’s sense of how to lead into a song, or trail out of one.
He also had a commanding storytelling style, filled with cherry-picked details and a deceptively offhanded delivery. After “Railroad Blues,” for example, Guthrie recalls his first encounter with the song:
That was the “Railroad Blues” that the colored boy was playing as I walked past the barbershop door. It was on a warm summer’s day, and I was laying up there barefooted and I just had my shoes off a couple of months and they were just about tough enough then to where I could run through cockleburs and broke bottles and wade through the liquor bottles up and down the back alleys after whiskey got to be pretty popular.
This moment of musical sympathy, Guthrie explains, took place against a backdrop of inequality and resentment: it was, he says, a “common everyday feeling down in that part of the country, for some strange reason, was the idea that some people were born a little bit better than others, and that some are supposed to work pretty hard, and others are supposed to coast through life.” The conversation with Lomax heads in several other compelling directions, some unsavory. “The Gang of Kids Woody Hung Around With” evolves into a disquisition on underage drinking and bootlegging (complete with a rendition of “Rye Whiskey”), and the baroquely titled “The Troubles and Tragedies That Fractured Woody’s Family in Okemah” touches on mental illness, child labor, and more. Woody is never self-pitying; he’s always colorful, mixing rueful humor and incisive observation.
For four discs, the set presents the Library of Congress recordings in all their glory, moving from the hardships of Dust Bowl Oklahoma to new hope in California. And then, on the fifth disc, there’s a turn. In May of 1941, Guthrie travelled to the Pacific Northwest to write songs for a Gunther von Fritsch documentary about the Bonneville Power Administration. The trip yielded more than two dozen new compositions, including “Pastures of Plenty” and “Grand Coulee Dam.” They are here. During the war, Guthrie and the Almanac Singers (a New York-based folk group that also included Pete Seeger) made a series of idiosyncratically patriotic recordings for the Office of War Information. Those are here, too. And then there are the V.D. recordings for the U.S. Public Health Service, better known as a result of cover versions Bob Dylan performed on the Minnesota Hotel Tapes, in 1961. They are here, as well, along with the pricelessly odd radio drama “The Lonesome Traveler,” in which Guthrie stars as Rusty, the traveller, who encounters various obstacles along the way, some venereal, some not, and compares the cure for sexually transmitted ailments with the splitting of the atom.
As the back end of the set skips from project to project, it begins to feel slightly scattershot; Guthrie’s musical autobiography, which folds in a kind of biography of the nation, gives way to more equivocal campaigns on behalf of a federal government that was willing to admit the views of artists, up to a point. The liner notes, written by the Rounder co-founder (and baseball historian) Bill Nowlin with the full participation of Guthrie’s daughter Nora, run to forty pages. She has the unenviable task of trying to explain why these otherwise disparate strands of Guthrie’s career are tied together on “American Radical Patriot,” and the strain sometimes shows. One section, titled “How Had Woody Wanted To Be Seen?,” begins in self-explosion: “This is a question we can’t really answer, and to address it is really beyond the purview of these notes.” But the notes also include fascinating excerpts from Guthrie’s own letters and other writings (on the hypocrisy of militarism, Guthrie writes that it “looks like ever body is declaring war against the forces of force”) and reproduce some rare artwork (“All In,” Guthrie’s cartoon strip about the draft board, is a revelation).
In the middle of Nowlin’s essay, there’s a fussy but fascinating footnote: “This package was prepared in 2012, the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. The Bonneville Power Administration celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2012 and made arrangements with Rounder Records and Woody Guthrie’s publisher to play selections from the BPA recordings on this set as music for people placed on hold on their telephone system and at meetings during the course of the year.” The thought of Guthrie singing directly to “people placed on hold” is worth the price of admission, and it emphasizes what is, and should be, at the heart of the session: Guthrie’s voice. His devotion to honesty—or, at the very least, to creating the appearance of honesty in social and political matters traditionally obscured by dishonesty—lives on, both in his own work and in the work of those he influenced.
The most direct links, of course, are to Seeger and Dylan. But there are dozens of secondary and tertiary heirs as well, from Bruce Springsteen to Billy Bragg. And the model is still resonating with young artists, like Vikesh Kapoor. Kapoor has a Guthrie-like origin story of his own: raised in rural Pennsylvania, he attended college briefly before becoming a mason’s apprentice, and then, after performing at the funeral of the activist and author Howard Zinn, in 2010, devoted himself to political songcraft. The result of Kapoor’s artistic awakening, “The Ballad of Willy Robbins,” is out this month, and in songs like the title track and “Bottom of the Ladder,” he delivers a series of sharply etched portraits of struggling Americans that points back along a road of socially conscious songs. Guthrie is standing at the head of that road.
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.