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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real McCoy, 9 Nov 2013
By 
Dr. John Bromilow (Okehampton, Devon United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Radical Patriot (Audio CD)
Rounder Records had originally planned to release this collection in 2012, the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth; however, because Smithsonian-Folkways were also planning to release their own tribute that year, it was withdrawn so as not to compete, much to the dismay of Guthrie enthusiasts. Rounder then released it this year, changing the title from `The Complete Government Recordings', possibly because this made Woody Guthrie sound more CIA than CIO, to the present one; however for `government' think more Forestry Commission than Whitehall.

The collection is very fine and well produced, consisting of a hard back book of about seventy pages containing six CD's, one DVD and, rather curiously, a 10" 78 rpm vinyl record, all set rather like an old fashioned 78 album.

The book is in fact an edited portion of a more complete work of over 250 pages, although the complete volume is also included as a pdf file on the first disc of the collection. This annoying feature is becoming increasingly common but, in this particular case at least, the complete book can be bought separately and, being a paperback is relatively inexpensive, although the printing is not of the standard of the edited version. Both versions contain information about Woody Guthrie and his recordings, several photographs of him and his family, as well as of other relevant subjects and a batch of Woody's drawings. There is a track listing but no clear discographical information.

Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Woody Guthrie for the Library of Congress in 1940 over a three day period, singing his own songs, folk songs and discussing his life, times and attitudes in a series of monologues and dialogues with Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, the latter appearing as a much less successful interviewer than her husband. Much of this was released in 1964 by Electra on a set of three LP's together with an interesting booklet, although editor Jac Holzman deleted some of the music and portions from most of the monologues and dialogues. The recordings were later released as a three CD set by Rounder, minus the booklet. Rounder have now corrected these shortcomings by releasing the whole session with the hard back book. These recordings comprise the first three and a half CD's in the collection. These Library of Congress recordings will be of great interest to Woody Guthrie collectors and enthusiasts in learning more about the man as well as hearing a few songs that he did not record again. In many ways these are historic recordings rather like, say, the Hot Fives in the world of jazz.

The balance of the fourth CD includes material by Woody recorded on a 16" disc by Alan Lomax and John Langenegger for the Library of Congress the following year. Only a few of these titles have been previously released and then by the Library itself as part of larger collections with other artists. These titles have only short spoken introductions and this session feels more like a very informal concert and less like an interview, especially when Woody forgets the words of `Trail to Mexico' and speaks to his small daughter when she walks in on `Gypsy Davy'.

The fifth CD consists mainly of Bonneville Power Administration songs. Woody Guthrie was commissioned in 1941 by that organisation to write a series of songs for a promotional film - The Columbia - about the advantages of the hydro-electric dams in the Pacific North West. He recorded fourteen songs although only three of them were actually used in the film. The original acetates had been lost but fortunately copies were found although the quality does vary. Rounder had issued all but three of these in an earlier CD, `Columbia River Collection', two of which were duplicated anyway and the third, `Pastures of Plenty', now appears in this collection for the first time; the recording quality here is very poor but it is good to hear the song. Although it is not immediately clear, a number of relevant titles which appear here, and on the original CD, were actually recorded by Moses Asch of Folkways Records six years later and not made directly for the BPA.These Columbia River songs - such as `Hard Travelin' and `Grand Coulee Dam' - are among Woody Guthrie's finest work. The rest of this CD and all of the final CD contain material that has never been released before.

Next comes a series of radio programmes made for the Office of War Information. The first features Woody Guthrie with the Almanac Singers and it is a pity that all of this session has not been included. Then there are relevant sections of four drama/documentaries with Woody providing the music. These latter are probably more of historical than musical interest.

Then follows a series of songs on health promotion made by Woody as a demo tape, although it is uncertain to what purpose these were intended. Being home made the quality is relatively poor especially the balance, but if you're a completist or really want to listen to a series of songs about the diseases formerly known as VD then this will at least be of some interest.

More effectively in this regard is `The Lonesome Traveler', a short radio drama written and directed by Alan Lomax for the Health Department. Here Woody plays the lead character and uses his songs and life to promote sexual health.

The DVD is a 1999 documentary about Woody's time in the Pacific North West. His music of course provides much of the background and there are impressive shots both during the building and later of the river and the dams. There are interviews with people who knew Woody at the time he visited the Columbia River and with several familiar faces, including Alan Lomax who has been often referred to above. Unfortunately the film`Columbia' doesn't appear in its entirety but there are several clips although there are no clips, which are few and short anyway, of the man himself. Incidentally you can view the whole 'Columbia' film on YouTube.

Woody Guthrie was the real McCoy, a folk musician who lived the life, wrote and sang the songs. I am uncertain of any benefit of including a 10" 78 in this otherwise superb set with the Real McCoy on the A side and the Real Phony on the B side, whose only knowledge of blowing down that old dusty road was from the back of a chauffeur driven Cadillac. Few can play a 78 now anyway.

This is a fine production, beautifully presented, and will be welcomed by all Woody Guthrie enthusiasts; it is also a rather expensive one. It gives an excellent overview of Woody, his life, times and some insight into the man himself. Hence I have given it the maximum number of stars. However with all the often quite long dialogues and monologues in many parts of the recordings - especially the radio programmes - it is not for the casual collector or for those seeking an introduction to Woody Guthrie. For them I would recommend obtaining Rounder's `My Dusty Road' which includes a large collection of Guthrie material, including work with Cisco Houston; or alternatively his `Dust Bowl Ballads' also from Rounder. You might well then buy the present collection after hearing these anyway.

Is this really the complete Library of Congress collection? Well, no not quite - there's 4793A recorded at Ashville Folk Festival, for a start. But I won't nitpick: it's close enough!
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American Radical Patriot by Woody Guthrie (Audio CD - 2013)
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