The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #145543   Message #3374921
Posted By: Desert Dancer
11-Jul-12 - 12:11 PM
Thread Name: Woody at 100 - Smithsonian Folkways
Subject: RE: Woody at 100 - Smithsonian Folkways
The New York Times has a review today:

'Your Land,' and Guthrie's, Preserved
By Larry Rohter
July 11, 2012

THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION'S "Woody at 100," a three- CD boxed set [YouTube teaser at the link] commemorating the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth, begins, as it must, with "This Land Is Your Land," his most famous song. But instead of the standard, sanitized lyrics taught to schoolchildren as a kind of patriotic bromide, it offers an alternate version with an extra verse that is a biting, defiant and subversive jab at what today would be called the 1 percent.

"Woody at 100" proves to be full of unexpected moments like that, seemingly designed to compel listeners to reassess their image of America's best-known folk singer. Guthrie's political side is certainly on display, with his left-wing sentiments in even sharper relief. But what also emerges is the notion of an artist rooted in country music and the blues, capable of writing in any style, from earnest Appalachian ballad to topical broadside, from hillbilly lament to whimsical children's song.

"I wanted a slightly different take from the way Woody Guthrie is normally painted, as the hobo or urban folk singer," said Jeff Place, chief archivist at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and co-producer of the new collection. "Along with the iconic songs, I also wanted to sprinkle in some obscure stuff to turn people on to a side they may not know, that of Woody as a singer out of Oklahoma" who absorbed all the many styles of music he heard growing up there.

"Woody at 100" was released on Tuesday, four days before what would have been Guthrie's 100th birthday; it has 57 tracks, including 6 songs that have never been heard on record and almost an entire CD of performances from radio broadcasts and live shows. It also contains a pair of musicological essays and dozens of Guthrie's drawings, paintings and handwritten lyrics, drawn from the vast collection bequeathed to the Smithsonian 25 years ago by the estate of Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, the label for which Guthrie recorded much of his best work.

The country music strain emerges early in the set, with "Philadelphia Lawyer" — a Guthrie original later recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Flatt & Scruggs, and Merle Haggard — and continues throughout. The last CD not only has Guthrie performing the standard "Wabash Cannonball," a hit for both the Carter Family and Roy Acuff, but also includes four songs broadcast in 1937 by the Los Angeles radio station KFVD, newly surfaced performances that are the earliest known recordings made by Guthrie and are full of the kind of down-home patter, clearly aimed at Guthrie's fellow Okies and other Dust Bowl refugees, that wouldn't have been out of place at the Grand Ole Opry.

"Woody's birth as a musician begins with country music, and he was a country artist," said his daughter Nora Guthrie, the founder and director of the Guthrie Archives. "He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, though not the Country Music Hall of Fame, but that has to do with politics, not his music. He was always plugged into Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and he identified himself as a hillbilly music performer."

The collection includes only a couple of blues tracks, the most notable of which may be a version of "Stagger Lee" that Guthrie performed for the BBC during World War II, when he was serving in the Merchant Marine "warshin' dishes on a Liberty Ship," as he puts it to the program's clearly baffled host. But blues licks percolate in his guitar parts throughout the boxed set — a result, he suggests to his BBC host, of being raised in a place where "the population is one-third Indians, one-third Negroes and one-third white people."

The politically charged populist anthems are present too, of course, and one revelation of the boxed set is just how many of them have been made current by the Great Recession that began in 2008. "The Jolly Banker" takes a swing at the money men who, when "the times they are rotten" and "the bugs get your cotton" will "come and foreclose, take your car and your clothes," while "Jesus Christ" recasts the New Testament as a lesson in class warfare, and "Pretty Boy Floyd" includes the couplet "Now as through this world I ramble, I've seen lots of funny men/Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen."

Meanwhile the unexpurgated version of "This Land Is Your Land," which Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang at the Obama inauguration in 2009, has become one of the anthems of the Occupy Wall Street movement, thanks in part to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. The version that opens the set includes a passage that eventually evolved into this verse:

There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was painted that said 'Private Property'

But on the other side it didn't say nothin'

That side was made for you and me.

"Here we are at 100 years, and yet through an unfortunate turn of events he is as valid an artist as ever," said Robert Santelli, author of the book "This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song" (Running Press) and Mr. Place's co-producer on the CD set. "He wrote about immigration, banks, the disenfranchised, and many of those topics are with us still. We wanted to show the vision and poetic beauty of these songs, but also how music can act as an agent for social and political change, and Woody is the poster boy for that."

Indirectly "Woody at 100" also makes an argument for Guthrie's continued artistic relevance. Nearly every book ever written about Bob Dylan notes how central an influence he found Guthrie, who died in 1967 after struggling for nearly two decades with Huntington's disease, a nerve disorder. But the music on these discs, especially talking blues like "Talking Centralia" and various songs in which Guthrie was playing guitar and a harmonica in a rack, suggest that he was a prototype for the entire singer-songwriter movement that began in the 1960s and continues today.

Beyond that, "Woody at 100" suggests that Guthrie was also the progenitor of the genre that has come to be known as Americana, heartland or roots rock, whose practitioners include Mr. Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Ry Cooder, Steve Earle, Son Volt and Wilco, which in the late 1990s put music to three CDs worth of Guthrie lyrics together with the British protest singer Billy Bragg, just rereleased as a boxed set. A new CD from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, "Americana," contains a version of "This Land Is Your Land" that consists only of the three verses that have generally been ignored, and both John Lennon and Joe Strummer of the Clash have publicly expressed their admiration for Guthrie.

"It's hard to think of another folk musician who has had more influence on American vernacular music today than Woody Guthrie," Mr. Santelli said. "If you pick up a guitar or write songs, you know about this man, you know his story, and at some point you will borrow from or be impacted by him."

The Guthrie boxed set is perhaps the most ambitious indication of the continuing revitalization of Folkways Records, which Asch founded in New York in the 1940s as an outlet for musical styles outside the commercial mainstream. Already this year the label has issued previously unheard live recordings by Louis Armstrong and Mr. Seeger, and it is about to release the jaunty collection "Classic Harmonica Blues," the latest CD in a series aimed at documenting America's musical heritage in all its forms.

But in keeping with the original Folkways mandate of creating "an encyclopedia of sound," the label has also stepped up its releases of world music, both archival and newly commissioned recordings. A 10-volume "Music of Central Asia" series, consisting of CD/DVD packages with extensive, highly informative liner notes, has just concluded. But "Tradiciones," a 38-volume-and-counting series dedicated to the music of the Americas, ranging from Venezuelan carnival music and Uruguayan cowboy songs to recordings by Latinos in the United States, continues.

The estate of Asch, Folkways' eccentric founder, sold the label to the Smithsonian on the condition that none of the more than 2,000 recordings in its catalog be allowed to go out of print. That would have been a deal killer for a conventional commercial label, but for the Smithsonian, whose recording operations are nonprofit and do not rely on taxpayer money, that demand meshed perfectly with what curators there regard as their central mission. In addition to Folkways, the Smithsonian has acquired a dozen other labels specializing in odd corners of the industry, like spoken word and children's recordings and including, most recently, the worldwide rights to Unesco's collection of recorded music from around the globe.

"The Smithsonian is in the business of making everything available forever," said Dan Sheehy, director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. "We are mission driven here, with the twin missions of valuing world cultures and understanding the American experience, so money is not the bottom line. Our priority is to build our collection and get it out there."

That philosophy, which relies heavily on adept use of the Internet to stimulate interest in the material, seems to be yielding the desired results. Though Smithsonian Folkways' revenues are modest, they have nearly doubled, to just under $4 million last year, during a decade in which the record industry as a whole has seen its revenues decline by 50 percent.

Dozens of other discs that Woody Guthrie recorded for Folkways remain stored in the Smithsonian's climate-controlled musical archives here — which also contain treasures like an original 78 r.p.m. version of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" — as do the lyric sheets for songs he wrote but was unable to record before his disease debilitated him. All told there are more than 3,000 songs written in barely a decade, which suggests that much more of Guthrie's unheard music could be released.

"Woody was like Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams or Jimi Hendrix," Mr. Place said. "He was a supernova who came through rapidly, but in the short time he was around he influenced everything after."