Reviewed: Woody Guthrie
Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2012)
Woody Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, but the fact that 2012 marks the centennial of Guthrie’s birth is probably old news to people reading this column, given the recent media blitz. Much of the attention has focused on—or has been prompted by—a recent Smithsonian Folkways Recordings release entitled Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection. This three CD/book package is the third major “box set” release of the past five years dedicated to exploring Guthrie’s music. Woody at 100 covers the most ground and thus is the better introduction to the man and his music, even if the other two sets offer more previously uncollected recordings (Live Wire) or more classic Guthrie recordings (My Dusty Road).
Guthrie has not only been the subject of a steady stream of archival recording projects and album reissues, but also of a range of commemorative efforts—tribute albums and concerts, academic symposiums, documentary films, and even an acclaimed Hollywood biopic (Hal Ashby’s 1976 film Bound for Glory). Guthrie has deserved all the attention, and not just for the power of his music. Granted that he composed some of the more poignant songs in the American songbook (“This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” and many others), and granted that Guthrie’s recordings of his own songs and of traditional material have served as inspiration for several generations of folkies and singer-songwriters.
Guthrie was in sui generis because of everything else he did: spirited collaborations with other master musicians (such as Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry); radio work (in the late 1930s Guthrie was a radio star on KFVD Los Angeles, and in the early 1940s he regularly performed on CBS Radio); books (he wrote several, including his widely-read 1943 autobiography, Bound for Glory); acting (he appeared in western movies and radio plays); visual artwork (in the “outsider art” vein); and mentoring younger musicians (in person—as with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan—and vicariously through the ever-widening impact of Guthrie’s recorded legacy).
Woody at 100 represents this full scope of Guthrie’s genius—his cosmic, comic, political, and poetic sides. The three CDs combine previously released Guthrie recordings and rare material transferred from the Folkways archives held at the Smithsonian. Musical highlights on Woody at 100 include long-forgotten radio shows and some unforgettable never-before-heard recordings of such classic songs as “Hard Travelin’” (composed by Guthrie) and “Hobo’s Lullaby” (one of Guthrie’s favorite songs, composed by 1930s-era cowboy singer Goebel Reeves).
A central part of Woody at 100 is a 148-page book, which contains a wealth of material: essays and song-by-song notes by co-producers Robert Santelli and Jeff Place; historical photos of his family and cronies and of his environs; samples of Guthrie’s charming visual artwork (oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, and informal sketches and doodles); cover images from his albums; and reproductions of Guthrie’s letters, session notes, and lyric sheets. Some of these latter documents were hand-written, and one such document (on page sixty-seven of the book) is heartbreaking: Dating from his residency at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in the late 1950s, the document reflects his deteriorating condition resulting from illness (Huntington’s disease).
As Woody at 100 makes clear, there’s much to admire about how Guthrie lived his life, however untidy or troubled it was at times. Even today, though, decades after his death, some people seem threatened by his radical reputation. Santelli suggests as much in his essay: During a visit to the Texas panhandle town of Pampa (one of the places in which Guthrie lived during his youth), Santelli gave an impromptu talk at a chamber of commerce meeting on the man whose guitar once bore a sticker proclaiming “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS”…only to witness some of the organization’s members walk out.
As with Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, Sr., two other musicians who played seminal roles in shaping modern American vernacular music, Guthrie was silenced in the prime of his career. When he died from Huntington’s disease on October 3, 1967, Guthrie was already a hero to many and a legend to some. In the intervening years, his stature has deepened and broadened.
Woody at 100 does an excellent job in reminding the already initiated why we should remember Guthrie. Perhaps most importantly, the box set, by effectively balancing the multiple aspects of his humane yet daring genuis, will introduce a new generation to the breadth of Guthrie’s art.
Buy the collection here.