Smithsonian-Folkways have issued this tribute to Woody Guthrie to celebrate his birth 100 years ago this year. A fine tribute it is too: a lavishly produced 150 page hard back book, designed rather like a LP album, with three CD's inserted.
The book is beautifully designed with many illustrations: photographs of Woody Guthrie and others, many reproductions of his drawings and paintings, letters to and from him, manuscripts of his songs and of record labels and sleeves. The display of these sleeves is particularly attractive. There are essays by Robert Santelli about Woody Guthrie's life and by Archivist Jeff Place on his music and recordings. There are detailed notes on the songs, a list of available recordings and an extensive discography. There are a few errors and omissions apparent only to the dedicated discographer: the harmonica on Hard Travelin' is played by Woody himself and not Sonny Terry and the Rounder important My Dusty Road collection is not mentioned.
The three CD's exhibit a comprehensive collection of Woody Guthrie's recording over his whole career from his very first recordings in 1939 to one of his last in 1951, when he is showing signs of the tragic disease which would eventually end his life. They were mostly - but by no means all - recorded by Moses Asch, of Asch, Disc and Folkways records, whose catalogue the Smithsonian fortunately bought on Asch's death. Here we hear Woody alone and with Cisco Houston, Lead Belly and Sonny Terry singing folk songs, children's songs and his own compositions.
Of the forty-five titles on discs 1 and 2 all except one, a children's song, have been released before on CD, the majority by Smithsonian-Folkways themselves - and then sometimes more than once. Three come from Library of Congress recordings and one, which is of great interest, from a very expensive Bear collection of CD's and book. Seven of these titles were issued recently by Rounder in their My Dusty Road collection and I have to say that these releases, having been taken from the metal masters, are clearer than the Smithsonian-Folkways releases.
Disc 1 and 2 may not be anything new for the avid Woody Guthrie collector but disc 3 certainly will be: this is a true gem! Only two titles have been released before, both children's songs and both on 78 recordings only, never on CD. We are fortunate that Moses Asch recorded radio programmes and here are several to allow us to hear what Woody sounded like over the airwaves. Another item (Reckless Talk) is added from the Woody & Cisco 1944 sessions recorded by Asch; to me these are an unbeatable series of recordings. Two sets are of particular note: Woody's very first known recordings in 1939, which were possibly demos he made himself and a series of four titles he broadcast on Children's Hour for the BBC in 1944. The wonderfully plumy voiced BBC announcer who introduces him, doesn't seem to know quite what to make of Woody Guthrie and the songs he sang!
Listening to these songs again makes me feel that, although the times that Woody Guthrie lived through are long gone, the songs he wrote are still fresh and sadly relevant today: songs of greedy bankers, greedy landlords, unemployment, poverty and social injustice; all written with his observant eye and bitter humour. I wonder what he would have sung today.