Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

It Still Moves by Amanda Petrusich

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Published by Faber & Faber in 2008, It Still Moves is one part road trip dairy, one part cultural study, and one part musicological thesis.  The author Amanda Petrusich a contributing writer for Pitchfork.com and tons of other music publications.  She has also written one other book:  Pink Moon (about the classic Nick Drake album of the same name) as a part of the 33 1/3 series by Continuum Books.  I found her writing to be well thought out, organized, and meticulously researched.  She uses a well planned road trip to a string of important musical destinations as a vehicle to parcel the more historical/factual info in as a story.   The travel portion of the book does come off as a little forced at times, as she very obviously tried to make the best of a few of the less than inspirational experiences at a few of the featured locations.  Overall the book does a wonderful job at delivering a full/wide view of American Music, hitting all the cornerstones of what “Americana” is thought of, including The Blues, Country, Folk, and the more recent interpretations and combinations of the those styles.

The book is composed of 17 parts including an introduction and epilogue.

Here is a rough guide to what they cover:

  • Intro – Just that, acts to identify what the book is going to try to accomplish which is mainly to discover just what “Americana” is.
  • Chapter 1 – Examination of the American Highway, and how that relates to American music.
  • Chapter 2 – Focuses on the history of the Blues kicked off with a visit to Beale Street in Memphis Tennessee.
  • Chapter 3 – Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the birth of Rock N Roll also in Memphis.
  • Chapter 4 – Elvis Presley and his impact on popular music with a visit to Graceland.
  • Chapter 5 – Further examination of the Blues through travels to Clarksdale Mississippi.
  • Chapter 6 – Country music by way of Nashville Tennessee.
  • Chapter 7 – Alternative Country
  • Chapter 8 – Continued travels through Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Chapter 9 – Minstrel shows and early radio.
  • Chapter 10 – Appalachian folk music, The Carter Family, and early Country music.
  • Chapter 11 – Americana by way of Cracker Barrel.
  • Chapter 12 – John Lomax, Leadbelly, Moses Asch, and Folkways Records.
  • Chapter 13 – Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Smithsonian Folkways.
  • Chapter 14 – Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and the Folk revival of the 1960s.
  • Chapter 15 – Independent Folk.
  • Epilogue – Continued ruminations on the definition of Americana.

The driving question here is “What is Americana?”, which I think is an important one to ask.   Although I’m not sure the book fully answers it, then again I’m not sure any book can or should try.  Americana, at least when it relates to music, is just one of those terms that is too complicated to define.  Whenever you are trying to precisely define a label that is used as a shortcut to describe an art form you inevitably will get your self into trouble.  It is a journal full of pitfalls, contradictions,  and personal opinion.  Although I personally often fall back on the genre/sub-genre/style labels in my writing, I try not to be restrictive with my labels when setting something in stone.  Take Neil Young for instance, can you really say he is strictly a “country-rock” artist?  If you do, you are completely omitting all of his work that does not exactly fit into that label.  I prefer to keep it simple and classify things in general terms like Pop/Rock.

Just for fun here is a link to the Webster Dictionary definition of Americana.

I would also like to offer a playlist of music that is directly mentioned in the book or inspired by the books subject.

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Chronicles – Volume One by Bob Dylan

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My opinions of Bob Dylan have always been conflicted… I have always enjoyed his early recordings but have been mystified by his post-1970 output.  As I have aged, I have come to understand the extremely important role he holds in popular music and American culture.  This realization has brought me to put more effort into understanding his music and the easiest way for me to interface better with an artist’s output is with hearing the story behind it. After researching the myriad of book options available on the life of Bob Dylan, I’ve decided to start with the one written by the man himself.

Dylan’s writing is powerful, yet still conversational.  Throughout the book I felt as if I was chatting with him over dinner.  His tone is of someone who is reluctantly, sometimes self-possessedly, getting things off his chest.  The book was not as structured as I had expected… but having known something of his past, as everyone does, I should have expected the books structure would be a bit abstract.  My main surprise was that he jumps around his life, each chapter a different time period which is not clearly defined.  I, like many fans, were hoping for Volume One to chronicle his life before fame and his early career much like Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home.

The book is broken up into 5 parts.  Here is a guide to give you an idea of exactly what periods he covers.

1.  Making up the Score (takes place in 1961 soon after signing on with John Hammond)

2.  The Lost Land (continues the narrative from the previous chapter with more scenes from 1961 and flashes of his upbringing)

3.  New Morning (focuses on the recording of the album of same name – recorded 1970)

4.  Oh Mercy (focuses on the writing and recording of the album of the same name – 1987-89)

5.  River of Ice (takes place in 1962 right after making his first Demos with Lou Levy of Leeds Music with more flashbacks)

It seems like years pass while Dylan is telling his story, and in some ways, they do as he gets sidetracked and gives little glimpses of his upbringing or his pre-NY life.  The highlights there are info on his upbringing in Hibbing MN, his brief stop-off in Minneapolis/ Dinky Town before he took the train to New York City.  He also touches upon his experiences in early Rock N’ Roll bands which give you a little more insight into his musical influences.  Those portions were of most interest to me as I have first-hand knowledge of that geography, being from Minnesota myself.  Mainly though, he is engaged in telling the story of when he first arrived in New York or, in the case of chapters 2 & 3, what happened during the recording of two of his post-1960’s.  Dylan gives little info on his family members, probably out of respect for his and their privacy.  He doesn’t really talk much about his parents and only mentions his wife in passing.  Only 4-5 years of his life are covered in the book (plus bits and pieces of his pre-NY life.)  Some of my favorite parts of the book are when Dylan makes references to things or events that are more recent.  For example he, at one point, references the classic Dylan book Invisible Republic by music writer Greil Marcus… Or when he tells the story of his failed attempt to retrieve Woody Guthrie’s unused song lyrics and he goes on to (almost bitterly) report that those lyrics were used 37 years later by Billy Bragg & Wilco for Mermaid Avenue Volumes 1 & 2.

What is left is a tremendous amount of ground for him to cover and, considering this is supposed to be a 3 part series.  As a reader, I worry that he won’t finish it or at least get to the most interesting bits.

It’s obvious that Dylan is a great artist, on par with the great painters or classical composers.  In fact he seems at times to be the complete embodiment of the archetype.  He is a man that is extremely creative, self-absorbed to a fault, 100% left brain.  I found myself wondering if he had been born in a different time if he would have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, considering his behavior at times.  He even seems to portray himself as quite the narcissist, but then again what artist or musician isn’t at least a bit of one?  One of the things that struck me about Dylan was the shear amount of powerful cultural figures he crossed paths with, so much so he almost seems like a magnet for brilliant people.

In the end I was left a little disappointed.   Although the book is enjoyable it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Dylan has to offer. If you have a curiosity for this fellow I would suggest reading a biography (not an auto-)… although I do not have a specific one to suggest.  Beyond that is the wonderful documentary I mentioned before, directed by Martin Scorsese.  In the end though, even that cuts off a little abruptly and doesn’t cover him past his late 60’s material.

A wonderful audio accompaniment to this book (for at least the NYC chapters) is The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (buy it /listen to it) that Columbia Records released last year.  Consuming them together is an ideal way to do it but alone it sheds a lot of light on the kind of material he built his style on… mainly a lot of old folk and blues songs.

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The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie

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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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Woody Guthrie Documentaries on DVD

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There are two documentary films available about American Folk legend Woody Guthrie.  The first released in 2005 is called Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists.  The other is a PBS documentary from the American Masters series that was released in 2007 called American Masters: Woody Guthrie.

Both films are pretty similar, obviously sharing the same subject matter and the chronological method by which they tell Woody’s story.  Each film features a introduction then eventually switches to a chronological narration of his story (w/ periodic meanderings off topic).  The 2005 doc separates Woody’s story into chapters which unfortunately doesn’t do much for the film.  For the most part they also feature the same interview subjects (Pete Seeger, various experts/biographers, and living relatives including his daughter Nora Guthrie), although the longer of the two films has quite a few more interviews.  The 2005 version is the longer of the two coming out at 2 hours and 40 minutes and the PBS doc is 90 minutes long.  The two films feature high profile narrators, the 2005 release features British Singer/Songwriter Billy Bragg, and the PBS film boasts the narration by actor Peter Coyote.  In the 2005 version Billy Bragg appears in the film in a handful of segments which honestly come off a little stiff.   The two films expertly make use of Guthrie’s large catalog of recorded material, including audio clips from interviews and radio shows.

One of the joys of watching these documentaries is you are visually given the context in which the music was created and you get a history lesson for those songs that were about actual events.  Much of the music Woody wrote was about the American experience or specific events.  It is great to have these films to walk us through those pieces of history we may not remember or be aware of.  Great examples of this are his songs “The Sinking of the Reuben James” and “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)” which are about about a US Navy warship that sank in WWII and the American Dust Bowl of the early to mid 1930s, both of which are discussed in the these films.

It was a great surprise to me to find out how much I didn’t know about Guthrie and these films did a great job at filling in those gaps.  This surprise was magnified by the fact that I have read Woody Guthrie’s Autobiography Bound For Glory.  Granted the book was written and published (1943) before a big chunk of Guthrie’s formative years, it did not do the job.  Let me be clear, I never found it to be boring… I just didn’t find it to be particularly informative and since watching these films I find out large chunks of it were embellished or untrue.  Woody had a way of portraying himself as a uneducated country boy, it was a part of his charm and I think that the autobiography follows that line.

Out of the two films I felt that the American Masters version was by far the most enjoyable.  This Machine Kills Fascists has its merits and among them is it’s extremely thorough and detailed.  Unfortunately with that it is just way too long and honestly when looking back came off a little flabby and a bit repetitive.  I would say that the American Masters film is just the right amount of detail and the information portrayed is also better organized.

Stay tuned to my site as I will be posting more about my studies of Guthrie including a post that will get into his life and music in a little more detail.  If you are interested in the watching the films you can find them both as part of the Netflix library or click the pics above as they are linked to the Amazon product pages.  Other suggested material would be the feature film based on Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory.  Although I have not read them, you also have the pick of two print biographies that have been released in the last 10 years, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Studs Terkel and Ed Cray as well as This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge.


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