Rating: 4.25/5Singing along with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is a childhood memory for such a large percentage of American adults that it’s almost a cliché to mention it in a discussion of Smithsonian Folkways’ new collection of archival Guthrie recordings. The anthology gives us the “standard” version of the American classic, the one that so many schoolchildren have internalized alongside “The Star-Spangled Banner” and The Pledge of Allegiance. But, we also hear the “alternative” version, the one that, unremarkably, isn’t taught in schools. We get that extra verse, the one fraught with ambiguity, anger and optimism, the one that sums up what makes Guthrie Guthrie and why he still resonates so strongly 100 years after his birth. Near the end of this alternate rendition, Guthrie sings, “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted, it said private property/ But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/ This land was made for you and me.”
Indeed, Guthrie spent his early life staring up at seemingly impenetrable walls. Riddled as a child and adolescent by a couple bizarre fire accidents (one that demolished the family home and another that killed his sister), his mother’s mental and physical instability and some bad business decisions by his father, Guthrie worked odd jobs and sometimes begged for food in Oklahoma before travelling with migrant workers to California. This was the era when Guthrie became the Dust Bowl Troubadour, picking up on the ballads and traditional folk songs the indomitable Okies sang. While Guthrie ultimately found himself in Southern California, New York City and the Pacific Northwest, the gritty, relentless Dust Bowl experience stuck with him his whole life.
Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection gives us a well-rounded sampling of Guthrie’s diverse output. We get a glimpse into not just Guthrie the Dust Bowl balladeer (“Do Re Mi,” “Talking Dust Bowl”), but also the gentle satirist (“Philadelphia Lawyer”), the composer of goofy kids’ songs (“Car Song,” “Why, Oh Why?”), the theologian (“Jesus Christ”), the chronicler and commentator of historical events (“Ludlow Massacre,” “The Sinking of the Reuben James”) and the WWII-era propagandist (“The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”). The boundaries between Guthrie’s divergent musical personas blur, though, the more one listens to this collection. “All Work Together,” for example, is equal parts children’s song, history lesson and wartime propaganda, admonishing America’s young people to help their parents build a better world, thus putting Hitler in his grave.
The anthology consists of three discs, totaling more than three hours of music. We get well-known versions of such perennial favorites as “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Known Yuh.” But, we’re also treated to 21 tracks that have never been released before, including some interviews and radio children’s programs. Some of the new material probably only warrants one listen. Do we really need to hear Woody on the BBC Children’s Hour multiple times? The tracks, whether obscure or mainstream, are all worth hearing at least once, and many of them continue to fascinate after repeated listens. There are several surprises beyond the obvious “This Land Is Your Land”-type picks. Take “Hard Ain’t It Hard,” for example. This haunting, soulful tune recounts a painful unrequited love, anticipating Frank Ocean’s recent acclaimed “Bad Religion” by several decades. Tunes like “New York Town” remind us that Guthrie was able to transfer his common-man aesthetic developed amongst the rural working class to an urban setting. It’s a pleasure to rediscover “Jesus Christ,” a tune that imagines Jesus would be killed once again if he found himself in the contemporary American capitalist system, given his emphasis on upending the social hierarchy and giving to the poor.
The discs are accompanied by a 150-page book containing photos, sketches by Guthrie himself and essays about each song. Anyone aspiring to understand American music—or America, for that matter—in any meaningful way must be familiar with the prophetic, profound Woody Guthrie. This Smithsonian Folkways collection does his timeless, ever relevant music justice.