by Jeff Fleischer(Nude as the News, June 7, 2000)
In many ways, Woody Guthrie has become the forgotten legend of the music industry. While the outpouring of “millennium” lists brought attention to a number of entertainers, little was paid to Guthrie, the man who laid the groundwork for virtually every musician since. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Joel has paid homage to him, yet much of his best work is unfamiliar to the public.
Thankfully, Smithsonian Folkways did its part to raise awareness by releasing four remastered collections, all recorded by Folkways founder Moses Asch during the 1940s.
The first in the collection, subtitled This Land is Your Land, serves as a general greatest hits album. Its 27 tracks sample all Woody’s styles, from patriotic anthems to fun love songs to politically charged tunes. The album is required listening for Guthrie fans and a great crash course for those unfamiliar with him.
The album opens with “This Land is Your Land,” probably his most famous song. A simple request for the equality of the working man, it appears on this collection in three versions, each with slightly different lyrics, though the familiar chorus remains constant.
“Car Song” is a fun tune about a car ride, with Woody making a number of verbal sound effects. “Talking Fishing Blues” is a pure talking blues, a deceptively difficult style that involves speaking a metered story over a basic guitar sequence. Here he sings about an unusual fishing trip, while “Talking Hard Work” applies his blue-collar work ethic to the pursuit of a woman. “Why, Oh Why?” is just a light, nonsensical ramble. But all these tracks demonstrate Guthrie’s ability to make music for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Other tracks show his strong, uncompromising politics. “Lindbergh” is a no-holds-barred attack on the famed pilot/Nazi sympathizer and his isolationist colleagues. He recounts Lindbergh’s ties to Hitler and ends with the warning, “Let me tell you workers before you cash in your checks. They say America First but they mean America next.” Guthrie saw class struggle in many facets of life, and in “Jesus Christ” he blames the plutocrats for the death of a man he casts not as a savior, but a hard-working carpenter. In “Jarama Valley,” he laments a fascist victory during the Spanish Civil War but vows revenge, singing “even though we lost that battle at Jarama, we’ll set this valley free before we’re through.”
Arguably the best political song on the album is “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” which lists man’s greatest accomplishments but tops them with the upcoming defeat of Hitler: “There’s a man across the ocean and I guess you know him well / His name is Adolf Hitler, and damn his soul to hell / We’ll kick him in the Panzers and put him on the run / And that’ll be the biggest thing that man has ever done.” But his patriotic, Americana style isn’t confined to political songs. Guthrie’s use of Western imagery is demonstrated with tracks like “Jesse James,” “Gypsy Davy” and “Philadelphia Lawyer.” He sings of the dust bowl drought on “Do-Re-Mi,” while praising American ingenuity on “Grand Coulee Dam.”
While all these themes are present in his work, Guthrie is best known as a voice for the voiceless. “Picture From Life’s Other Side” shows the downtrodden as pictures in an art gallery, from the suicide of an outcast to a man unknowingly killing his own brother. “Pastures of Plenty” recounts the thankless work of the migrants who “come with the dust and go with the wind.” “Ramblin’ Round” and “Hobo’s Lullaby” reflect his early career, traveling the country as a homeless folk singer.
By combining all these styles, This Land is Your Land creates a perfect sampler of Guthrie’s work. Every song on the album is excellent and the music holds up exceptionally well over time, as many of the issues Guthrie championed continue to be sources of contention. The remastered sound quality is surprisingly good for tracks recorded as much as 60 years ago.
Guthrie album releases are a recent phenomenon, as most of his work was passed down orally or through sheet music. With these Folkways releases, folk’s greatest prophet can finally reach a wider audience.
This Land Is Your Land: Asch Recordings #1
Smithsonian Folkways, 1999
RiYL: Pete Seeger, early Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Bragg