Fricke's Picks: Woody Guthrie's First Session Issued in 100th Birthday Set

Woody Guthrie
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Woody Guthrie
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A sumptuous birthday celebration of a true American idol, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways) is really a present to us: two CDs of our greatest folk singer's defining songs and recordings, mostly for Folkways' founder Moe Asch in the mid-1940s; a disc of rarities, previously unissued radio broadcasts and what is thought to be Guthrie's first studio session in Los Angeles in 1939; and a hard-bound LP-size book lavishly illustrated with art and writing in Guthrie's own hand.

Woody at 100 also comes loaded 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 heavy heart in every step of the drifter's anthem "Going Down the Road (Feeling Bad)"; Guthrie's immortal line in the outlaw ballad "Pretty Boy Floyd" about the crook who robs you "with a fountain pen". As late as 1951, shortly before he was diagnosed with Huntington's chorea, the disease that would silence and ultimately kill him, Guthrie was asking questions for which we still have no reasonable answers. "Why can't my two hands get a good payin' job?" he sings in "I've Got to Know," in weary-waltz time to the melody of the gospel chestnut "Farther Along." "Why did your law books/Chase me off my good land/Sure like to know, friend." The betrayl in that last word – delivered straight, almost off the cuff – weighs a ton.

A Patriot and Pop Journalist
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was not born into struggle; his Oklahoma family prospered in the local oil boom of the Twenties. But he was a socialist in the most patriotic sense: "Me and you and you working on something together and owning it together," as Guthrie wrote, quoting a migrant worker, in his 1943 autobiography, Bound for Glory. And he responded to the calamity and inequities of his time with incisive energy. In the classic "Do Re Mi," first recorded at that debut session, Guthrie uses a child-like phrase to nail the crying shame of a good man with empty pockets, then a jaunty chorus to blow the gloom away. It is masterful pop journalism: hard times reported with wit, challenge and the healing worth of a good tune.

Guthrie, who died in 1967, is one of America's most ubiquitous legends. His songwriting prime coincided with the dawn of mass media, and his extensive recordings – for Asch, radio, other labels and the Library of Congress and with Pete Seeger in folk's first supergroup, the Almanac Singers – are well represented in reissues. The moral spine, poetic vernacular and original tangle of blues, country and the church in Guthrie's wide body of work were central to the folk revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and they still run deep through his active disciples: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Wilco and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to name a mere handful.

But Woody at 100 is the pure, charged source of that legacy, in timely, inspirational form. 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.