Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie


Woody was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma and started on his ramblin’ ways at an early age.  He moved from Pampa, Texas to California to New York City; drifting through the rest of America in between.  The musical impact of Guthrie is immeasurable to modern folk music as well as popular music as a whole.  Woody’s music in my opinion is wildly under appreciated, so I hope I can help turn a few people on to it.  His music brims with American authenticity and down to earth charm.  Guthrie in my mind served as a very important bridge between the golden age of real American folk music and the very influential Greenwich Village based NY Folk Movement of the 1960s.  Not to mention the specific singer songwriters that he influenced over the years which include, but are not limited to Pete Seeger, Rambling Jack Elliott, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan and Joe Strummer.

Now that I’ve read Woody’s memoir, seen the motion picture based on it, listened to almost all of his recorded works, seen both major documentaries, I think I can say I know quite a bit about the man.  I’m not equipped to give you the whole story, but I have put together a quick list of surprising facts about the man that may just prompt you to dig further.

Interesting Facts:

  • When Woody moved to NY he hooked up with America’s musical elite, including Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Josh White, and Brownie McGee.  I think its important to mention that this group was integrated which was unusual for that time even for musicians.
  • Most may be surprised to find out Woody had some interesting political connections.  In California Woody found Communism to be sympathetic to his views on labor rights and the poor.  Woody also wrote a column called “Woody Sez” for a Communist newspaper.  Granted this was before the second red scare (1947 – 1957) so the worlds views of Communism was much different.
  • Woody’s life and family was plagued by fire.  His mother started his first family home on fire, his sister was killed in a fire, and his mother tried to set his father on fire.  Later in his life his daughter life would also claimed by fire.
  • Woody’s mother was very troubled and was put in an insane asylum early on in his life.  Later on Woody would find out that she suffered from Huntingtons disease and it would be his fear that he too would develop the symptoms.  Sometime in the late 1940s Woody started to show the signs and eventually died from complications of the disease.
  • Woody married 3 times, the third was with a woman much younger than him named Anneke who he met on one of his many hobo journeys away from his family in NY.
  • In one strange turn of events, Woody was sent to a mental hospital in New Jersey and they just assumed he was making the story up about the fact that he was a famous folk singer.

Woody’s recordings are difficult to navigate.  Most of what you will find available now are second rate budget compilations and a handful of quality legitimate releases.  The transfer of his music over the years has been a slow process from the now defunct formats over to today’s digital formats.  Below I have provided a guide to the highlights of Woody’s recorded output as it is available today with notes.

  • Dust Bowl Ballads
    – In 1940 Woody had a professional breakthrough when he was commissioned by RCA Victor to write some dust bowl songs on the heels of the success of the film version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  This release contains the songs from both volumes of Woody’s original RCA Victor releases.
  • Library of Congress Recordings, Vols. 1-3
    – An interesting listen as you hear Alan Lomax interview Woody as he tells his story in his own words.  It is unfortunate that the dialog is not tracked out from the songs though which makes it un-listenable as an album.  Recorded in 1941.
  • Columbia River Collection
    – Contains all the songs that the Bonneville Power Administration commissioned Woody to record for a film promoting the Grand Coulee Dam being built on the Columbia River in Oregon.  This material was recorded in 1941.
  • Almanac Singers:  Their Complete General Recordings
    – A collection that compiles all of the Almanac Singers recordings with General Records in 1941.  Although you can find two other albums of material from The Almanacs this material is the only that features Woody Guthrie in the recordings.  He sings only 5 songs but is there to accompany for the rest of the material.
  • The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4
    – This 4 disc box set is compiled from the wealth of material that Woody recorded between 1944 and 1947 for Folkways record label owner Moses Asch.  The discs organize Woody’s songs into themes, the first volume being a sort of best of collection, Volume two being a set of mainly folk and country standards, Volume 3 is a collection of topical/political songs, and fourth volume is made up of cowboy/western songs.
  • My Dusty Road
    Boxset – Another stash of songs that were recorded in the mid 1940s this time for Moses Asch and Herbert Harris that were recently recovered in an old woman’s basement.  By far the best collection of Woody’s songs available today – the song selection is great, and everything sounds clear as it has all been restored from the pristine masters.  Similar to the Asch Recordings boxset each disc has a loose theme and are entitled as follows:  Disc one – Woody’s Greatest Hits, Disc two – Woody’s Roots, Disc three – Woody The Agitator, and Disc four – Woody, Cisco and Sonny Jam the Blues, Hollers, and Dances.
  • Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti – Unfortunately not a very good record. The album is a bit sloppy and suffers from Woody’s freewheelin’ verse, most of which just doesn’t quite fit.  It could however be called the first concept album having been recorded between 1946 and 1947 about two Italian radicals who were executed in America in 1927.
  • Nursery Days & Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child – These two volumes of kids songs were released by Smithsonian Folkways long after Woody wrote and recorded these songs in 1947.  Written during Woody’s last burst of creativity before he lost control of himself due to his Huntingtons.

Shockingly, what you will not find is one solid compilation out there that showcases all of Woody’s best songs.  Both boxsets that are available have the first disc which is devoted to giving you a version of Woody’s “Greatest Hits” but I would say both fall short, as do all the budget compilations.  What the compilers have to contend with of course is a very large body of work that spans from around 1940 to around 1947 in which Guthrie recorded for many different labels.  What I have put together below is my version of Woody’s Greatest songs which span that whole period and pull from every label.  I even pulled from his work with the Almanac Singers although the only thing I ended up including was their version of the Woody Guthrie penned songs “Union Maid”, which Guthrie does not actually appear.  I hope you enjoy it, as it took me a lot of time and contained a lot of difficult choices.  (If you can not see the embedded playlist below, follow this link.)

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