Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection

This sumptuous birthday celebration of America's greatest folk singer is really a present to us: two CDs of his greatest songs and recordings, mostly from the mid-1940s, and a disc of illuminating rarities, including what is thought to be Guthrie's first studio session in 1939. Woody at 100 also comes rife with reminders of how much our current dire straits resemble the Depression-and-Dust Bowl-ravaged America in Guthrie's songs: the migrant poor harvesting bounty for the rich man's table in "Pastures of Plenty"; the line in "Pretty Boy Floyd" about the crook who robs you "with a fountain pen."

Guthrie was not born into struggle; his Oklahoma family prospered in the Twenties oil boom. But he responded to the calamity and inequities of his time with incisive energy. In "Do Re Mi," first recorded at that debut session, Guthrie uses a childlike phrase to nail the crying shame of an empty pocket, then a jaunty chorus to blow the gloom away. That moral spine and Guthrie's poetic way with the vernacular were central to the folk revival. They still run deep in active disciples like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.

But Woody at 100 is the pure, charged source of that legacy. In the 1940 version of the dust-storm story "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," Guthrie's spry voice spills across his bony, restless picking like he's already shaken off that ocean of dirt and hit the road, certain that his American dream, good friends and willing hands are all waiting at the next turn.

Listen to 'Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection':

From The Archives Issue 1163: August 16, 2012