Album Review: Woody Guthrie — American Radical Patriot
New Rounder Records box set American Radical Patriot is a super-sized treat not only for fans of Woody Guthrie’s music, but for anyone with an interest in early 20th century American history. It is a stunning collection of music and stories that complicates the legend of the iconic folksinger, a communist-sympathizer who also served in the U.S. Army and wrote songs for the Office of War Information during World War II.
American Radical Patriot is seven hours’ worth of material that Guthrie recorded with and for various governmental agencies, beginning with five hours of stories and songs Guthrie – then 27-years old – taped with a young Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in 1940 (truncated versions of these recordings have been released before; this is the complete version, with cleaned up sound). These are some of Guthrie’s first recordings; on these discs, we hear him playing a number of traditional songs (“Old Joe Clark” and “Rye Whiskey,” to name just two) and some of his original material; in between, prodded by Lomax, he talks about his childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma, matter-of-factly sharing tales – some are funny, more are tragic — about his friends, family, and the Depression and Dust Bowl that would influence so much of his work.
After the four Library of Congress discs, the box set progresses to the songs Guthrie recorded for the Bonneville Power Administration, which commissioned Guthrie to write songs about the BPA as a way to help publicize and celebrate the organization’s work, which brought cheap, hydroelectric power to thousands. Guthrie’s 26 songs, including “Roll, Columbia, Roll” and “Song of the Coulee Dam,” are picturesque tributes to the dams and rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
Beginning in 1942, Guthrie recorded a handful of songs and a pair of brief radio dramas for The Office of War Information. “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” is perhaps the best-known song Guthrie recorded during this time – and one of the saddest — but other songs are more rabble-rousing: Woody, singing with The Almanac Singers, encourages listeners to stick to the unions in “Labor For Victory,” to hurry up and get married in order to “speed up production” for Uncle Sam in “Takin’ It Easy,” and in “Whoopy Ti-Yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler,” he serves the Fuhrer with a dose of cowboy music before telling him, “You know the graveyard will be your new home.” Later in the decade, Guthrie served a U.S. Public Health initiative by writing songs about the consequences of syphilis in order to spread awareness about the disease and the available treatments. Songs like “The V.D. Blues” and “A Case of V.D.” seem antiquated now, when antibiotics can be found at any corner drugstore, and thankfully so, considering Guthrie’s vivid lyrics depicting carbuncles, fevers, and blinding torment.
Accompanying the six-CD, one-DVD, one-78rpm record collection is an e-book (free to download here) that includes more than 250 pages of extensive research and thoughtful essays penned by Rounder Records co-founder Bill Nowlin, who places Guthrie’s music in a historical context – his chapter on the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James, for which he interviewed one of the ship’s survivors, is highly recommended — and examines the man himself in what is perhaps the most thoughtful, well-written analysis since biographer Ed Cray wrote Ramblin’ Man. An excerpt:
Woody Guthrie loved his country. He didn’t agree with all of the policies of the government, or the ways in which some people took advantage of others. He saw faults in society, problems that negatively affected real people, and he wanted to fix them. He saw shortcomings and human failures and weaknesses – and strengths – and he knew things would never be perfect but he appreciated and understood and embraced the imperfections and he seemed to have a fundamental faith that people would see to it that things got fixed, if only more people realized that there really could be better ways. He was an optimist, and a bit of a dreamer, as anyone looking for real change must inevitably be.
Nowlin refuses to simplify Guthrie’s work, his views, or his story, instead offering a multifaceted look at the man who is so integral to roots music. American Radical Patriot is a long, rambling journey, but it’s one well worth taking.
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