How to honor Woody Guthrie on the 100th anniversary of his birth? It’s no easy feat finding focus for a subject whose body of work practically defines “iconic.” The depth and range of this three-disc collection seeks not only to hit the highest points in Guthrie’s unparalleled repertoire, but also to present glimpses into his history that shed new light on the man and his music, along with a handful of recordings never before issued to the public.
The first disc is devoted primarily to Guthrie’s best-known works, diving right into “This Your Land Is Your Land” at the outset, but with a twist. The most commonly known version appears near the end of the disc, but the leadoff track is an “alternate version,” which, in fact, preceded the standard one. Recorded in 1944 (four years after Guthrie wrote the song), it includes illuminating additional verses that had been kept alive by artists such as Pete Seeger and Woody’s son Arlo until the Smithsonian finally released this take in 1997.
The rest of disc one reads like a Guthrie-centric American history lesson, though it’s worth noting that two of the best moments are songs geared toward children. “Riding In My Car” is well-known for its engaging “car-car” chant, but equally endearing is “Why, Oh Why?,” in which Woody tries to answer his young daughter’s incessant questions with nonstop humor and rhyme.
Disc two is comparatively broader in scope and reflects a darker world view. “1913 Massacre” and “Ludlow Massacre” (based on a 1914 incident) find Guthrie writing about tragic incidents in which striking workers were killed by union-busting thugs. “Lindbergh” was not a celebration of the famed aviator but rather an indictment of his tolerance toward Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. “The Jolly Banker” is a scathing indictment of greed that seems strikingly applicable today (thus Wilco’s 2009 recording of the tune).
It’s the third disc, though, that’s the most unusual and intriguing. Right off the bat come four previously unissued songs recorded in Los Angeles in 1937, Guthrie’s earliest known recordings. At the end of the disc are two tracks from a rare single and two more previously unreleased recordings, including the lullaby “Goodnight Little Cathy” for his young daughter who later died in a fire. In the middle is a series of fascinating and revealing radio-show recordings from the 1940s, including one in London on a BBC children’s show when Guthrie was on leave with the Merchant Marines after his ship had been torpedoed. And, as a guest of Lead Belly on a 1940 New York radio show, he reels off three classic character studies: “John Hardy,” “Jesse James” and “Tom Joad.” The host introduces Guthrie as “the dustiest dust bowler of them all.” As we know now, 100 years after his birth, he was a whole lot more than that.