by Jeff Fleischer(Nude as the News, June 6, 2000)
Throughout his career, Woody Guthrie dabbled in numerous musical styles, both in terms of lyrics and arrangements. Yet most of his best work saw him sing about the causes he kept close to his heart — the Allies, the unions, the poor dust bowl farmers and any other group oppressed by society.
The third in an anthology released by Smithsonian Folkways, Hard Travelin’, focuses on Guthrie’s repertoire of topical songs. Recorded more than half a century ago, the songs still hold up and, more importantly, represent Guthrie at his most passionate and creative. “Hard Travelin’,” one of Guthrie’s most enduring songs, opens the album. The tale of a man working his hands to the bone “trying to make about a dollar a day” was the perfect ballad for farmers scraping to get by after losing their crops in the great dust storms. And it epitomizes the everyman ballads that Guthrie pioneered.
The album features other prime examples of this style. The classic “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” begins with the singer lamenting his own misfortune, but also points out the universality of his plight — “this world is such a strange and a funny place to be / the gamblin’ man is rich and the working man is poor / and I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
On “New Found Land” and “Oregon Trail,” Guthrie sings excitedly of the promise of better land in the West. “Farmer-Labor Train” tells of a unifying cross-country train ride where “there’s lumberjacks and teamsters and sailors from the sea / there’s farmin’ boys from Texas and the hills of Tennessee / there’s miners from Kentucky, there’s fishermen from Maine / every worker in the country rides that Farmer-Labor train.”
Labor issues were always at the forefront of Guthrie’s mind, as he wrote in the days when scabs and strike breakers threatened solidarity at every turn. “Better World A-Comin'” and a brief excerpt of “Union Maid” show his knack for rousing union anthems. “Vigilante Man” and “Mean Talking Blues” tell of despicable anti-union characters, the latter saying he “hates unions everywhere because god likes unions and I hate god.” With “Ludlow Massacre” and “1913 Massacre,” Guthrie recounts the atrocities committed against union members. “1913” recounts an ambush against striking miners by the National Guard in Colorado. “Ludlow” talks about a copper miners” Christmas party broken up by scabs claiming there was a fire, then smothering 73 children to death when they tried to leave. Here Guthrie scolds the scabs while describing the funeral procession, preaching “see what your greed for money has done.”
But the best cuts on the album are Guthrie’s World War II songs, which take the form of singable battle cries. “Miss Pavlachenko” glorifies a Russian folk hero, telling her “the world will always love you for all time to come / more than 300 Nazis fell by your guns.” While “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You” was originally a song about the dustbowl, Hard Travelin’ includes an alternate lyric about a young man leaving his hometown for the European theater, as “there’s a mighty big war that’s got to be won.”
“Sally Don’t You Grieve,” “When the Yanks Go Marching In” and “Talking Sailor” also take up the Allied cause. The best song of this group is the anti isolationist “What Are We Waiting On?” Guthrie urges action — “when I think of the ships and the men going down while the Russians fight on across the Don / there’s London in ruins and Paris in chains / good people, what are we waitin’ on?” — while explaining that a unified worldwide force will be “the union that’ll tear ol’ Hitler down.” The album also includes some great nuggets that don’t fall under the aforementioned topics. “Two Good Men” is about Sacco and Vanzetti, two immigrants executed after a controversial trial, where Guthrie says the judges and lawyers had “done more tricks than circus clowns.” He sounds great on children’s songs “Ship In The Sky” and “Hanukkah Dance.” He wrote “Hanukkah Dance” for his own children, who were raised in the Jewish faith of their mother. His interest in Judaism also led to “The Many And The Few,” a lyrical retelling of Jewish history that includes the return from Babylon up to the Hanukkah legend.
Folkways put a great compilation together with the four-part Guthrie rereleases, and Hard Travelin‘ is arguably the best of the group. There are a number of great political songs not included in the collection at all (“Deportee,” “Jolly Banker,” “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt”), but they either were not recorded during the sessions with Moses Asch or the tracks did not reproduce well.
Not long after Guthrie recorded most of these songs, Hitler was defeated, labor laws were strengthened and the great dust storms subsided. But his lyrics perfectly capture the turmoil of Depression-era American life, making them as fresh now as when he penned them. Hard Travelin’ is an impeccable time capsule, and one with several lessons for today’s listeners.
Hard Travelin’: Asch Recordings #3
Smithsonian Folkways, 1999
RiYL: Pete Seeger, early Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Bragg