In April 1944, the then little-known Woody Guthrie – back from doing his bit for the war effort with the US Merchant Marines – made a marathon series of recordings in New York for Moe Asch and Herbert Harris, respective heads of the Folkways and Stinson record labels.
In five days he recorded 125 tracks, but while Guthrie and some of the most celebrated songs from those sessions – This Land Is Your Land, Hard Travelin’ and Pretty Boy Floyd included – went on to fuel the folk revival that subsequently shaped American youth culture, those original recordings disappeared, presumed lost forever. But in 2003, a Sicilian woman in Brooklyn investigated the cardboard barrels that had long lain undisturbed in her basement and chanced upon the metal master tapes of those long-lost 1944 recordings.
Condensed into a four-CD set of 54 songs, inventively packaged with a 68-page booklet, what immediately hits you is the startling clarity. There’s none of the graininess that invariably accompanies such ancient discoveries – and afflicts many of the compilations previously issued in Woody’s name – and it sounds as if he’s playing right in front of your nose. To most people now, Woody Guthrie is an almost mythical figure canonised by Dylan, Springsteen et al but, perhaps for the first time, here’s the chance to grasp the full essence of the man behind the legend and the authenticity that makes him such an enduringly influential folk music giant.
The four CDs are thematically differentiated – Woody’s Roots features many of the old blues and country songs that coloured his Oklahoma upbringing; Woody the Agitator includes union songs and other material that laid the foundations for the protest movement; Woody, Cisco & Sonny is a good-time blast with kindred spirits Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry; and Woody’s Greatest Hits is mostly stuff we know already. Each is magnificent but the icing on the cake is six previously unheard songs, including the mighty Tear the Fascists Down.
If anyone had any doubts about the continuing relevance of Woody Guthrie, this blows them clean out of the water. --Colin Irwin
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