Five Essential Woody Guthrie Records

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 07.11.12 in Lists

Woody Guthrie is a lion of American folk music — an uncompromising voice for social justice, a firebrand political songwriter and — above all else — a storyteller without equal. Working your way through his material — most of it recorded Moses Asch — can be a daunting task. We asked Peter Blackstock, founder of No Depression magazine, to cherry-pick his favorites.

Probably the strongest single-disc collection of Woody Guthrie originals, this 27-track first installment of a four-volume series, released in 1997, marked the first time Guthrie's extended version of "This Land Is Your Land" had seen the light of day (with verses that previously had survived only through oral tradition). Elsewhere, there's the click-clack buzzing charm of "Car Song," the spoken rhythmic rambles of "Talking Fishing Blues" and "Talking Hard Work," accounts of disasters at sea from the Titanic ("When That Great Ship Went Down") and World War II ("The Sinking Of The Reuben James"), and Woody's fresh takes on traditional classics like "Gypsy Davy" and "A Picture From Life's Other Side." The three subsequent volumes in the Asch Recordings series help to fill out the greater Guthrie story that a single disc simply can't provide, but there's probably no better place to start exploring the world of Woody than right here.

Originally issued in 1989 after the death of Folkways label founder Moses Asch and reissued in 2005 with six extra tracks, this hybrid release marked the debut of Folkways' new lease on life under the Smithsonian umbrella. While just one of the songs, the closing track "We Shall Be Free," actually features both Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly together, the record's pairing of two 20th-century legends creates valuable context and contrast. In many respects, Guthrie's and Huddie Ledbetter's versions of American folk music are different sides of the same coin — both very much of the earth and grounded in country and blues, respectively, in a manner that naturally distilled into a hybrid country-blues. Will Geer's mid-record recitation introducing Guthrie's "Hard Traveling" is a sort of populist mission statement that could apply to both artists: "I'm out to sing songs that'll prove to you that this is your world."

The aim of this 1994 release was to gather a substantial set of Woody Guthrie recordings that weren't already familiar or otherwise available; as such, it's a fascinating 17-track document, full of songs mostly unfamiliar to casual Guthrie fans and largely unavailable outside of pricier box sets. On "Talking Centralia (Talking Miner)," Guthrie gets downright threatening at the end, making suggestions about how to take on Congress that probably would have earned him a visit from the Department of Homeland Security in the present day. There's a good deal of railroad fare here, with two train medleys, a "Train Narration" clip, and a song about traveling from Seattle to Chicago. Even the disc's one largely familiar tune, the opening track "Hard Traveling," sounds fresh thanks to the harmony vocal presence of Cisco Houston (who appears on other tracks too, as does blues harmonica great Sonny Terry).

That Woody Guthrie's name and songs are as ubiquitous as they are today is due in no small part to the ambassadorial efforts of Pete Seeger. This collection of live recordings — released in 1968, the year after Guthrie's death — finds Seeger singing many of his friend's best-known songs. Though Seeger's vocal delivery, generally clearer and cleaner than Guthrie's, takes a little of the edge away from Woody's originals, that clarity also helped draw increasingly large audiences to Guthrie's repertoire over the years. The sound quality varies significantly as the disc progresses; the studio-worthy takes at the outset shift abruptly to a noisy field recording of "This Land Is Your Land," though the audience sing-along lends intimacy to the track, putting you right there in the crowd with Pete. An entertaining medley of five songs that closes the record includes snippets of lesser-known tracks "Round and Round" and "Miss Pavlichenko" as well as the children's song "Clean-O."

Released in 1956, this audio-biography-styled record combined recordings of a handful of Woody Guthrie's most prominent songs with spoken-word introductions from Will Geer (known for his role as Grandpa in "The Waltons" and a longtime Guthrie friend). The intros are recitations of Guthrie's own words; Geer's skill as an actor helps color them with character, and you can feel Woody's personality springing to life throughout the album. The essence of his rambling spirit is perhaps best summed up by the introduction to "Grand Coulee Dam": "I'm one walker that stood way up and looked way down across to plenty of pretty sights in all their veiled and nakedest seasons," Geer reads. "Thumbin' it, hitchin' it, walkin' and talkin' it, chalkin' it, markin' it, sightin' it and hearing it, seein' and feelin' and breathin' and smellin' it in. Suckin' it down me, rubbin' it into all the pores of my skin, and the wind between my eyes knockin' honey in my comb."