In one regard, folk legend Woody Guthrie was and has been co-opted by a faux-patriotic contingent based on the strength of “This Land Is Your Land.” It was kind of a proto-”Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, in terms of how it was misinterpreted. But to many others, Guthrie was a progressive hero, a socialist if not communist voice (he “associated” with communist groups, but was never a “card-carrying” member of them) during and in the wake of the Great Depression. His simple guitar-voice (and sometimes plus-harmonica) approach was recorded in batches of recordings over the years, basically just in the 1940s and ’50s, and only one session of them was ever set down for a dedicated album. But Guthrie recorded many more songs than that, so in representing and exploring the discography of one of the most important musical artists of all time (he inspired a legion of people including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Springsteen), I had to build a little bit of a “personal canon.” Most of his songs were represented in his first commercial recording, DUST BOWL BALLADS, his earliest recorded works with musicologist Alan Lomax, and more recordings a few years later, yielding an extensive catalogue with Moe Asch, founder of the Folkways record label and a big proponent of American folk music. There were other sessions here and there, but Guthrie’s complications with Huntington’s disease cut his life relatively short, dying in 1967 at age 55. So here, I’ve considered his one “true” studio album DUST BOWL BALLADS, the intended-to-be full album BALLADS OF SACCO & VANZETTI, and the four retrospective ASCH RECORDINGS albums. I’ve omitted Guthrie’s children’s music albums NURSERY DAYS (1951) and SONGS TO GROW ON FOR MOTHER AND CHILD (1956) because I typically do so for these lists, and a number of their songs are actually included on THE ASCH RECORDINGS. But I’ve not omitted those compilation albums, as I usually would for other artists. That’s because they are the most definitive way to experience the bulk of Guthrie’s work, although there were numerous scattershot releases of those songs throughout the years, from WOODY GUTHRIE SINGS FOLK SONGS (1962) to HARD TRAVELIN’ (1964) and more. If this isn’t the most extensive approach to album-length Guthrie experiences, it’s because it’s somewhat difficult to fully understand what would be redundant to compare (because there are many song overlaps between the various compilations over the years). With all this being said, here are my evaluations of the six Woody Guthrie albums to listen to in order to get the full appreciation of his transcendent music.
#6 — BALLADS OF SACCO & VANZETTI (1960)
Favorite track: “I Just Want to Sing Your Name”
BALLADS OF SACCO & VANZETTI was conceived as a cohesive project addressing the American trial and 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants, for the murder of two people during a robbery. They almost certainly didn’t do it. Their immigrant status and belief in an unpopular set of political tenets led to their unfair fate, and with this set of songs, Guthrie made clear his sympathy for them. The eleven tracks he composed, recorded with Asch in 1946 and ’47, were unsatisfactory to him, and the record was not released in the form he envisioned. Even when it was released in 1960, it was still just the collection of what Asch was able to set down nearly 15 years earlier. But it’s a shame Guthrie didn’t have confidence in it, because it’s a compelling takedown of the circumstances surrounding Sacco and Vanzetti’s scapegoating, as well as a humane account of the end of two men’s lives. Perhaps because of its basically unfinished form, there is some ground that is retread a bit lyrically, which is maybe why it didn’t fully resonate with me as the other albums on this list did. But the songs still carry the Guthrie quality. “I Just Want to Sing Your Name” is a great little song, sad and meditative as it is. Maybe this is a good time to mention that I don’t know that a lot of Guthrie’s songs are extremely distinguished from each other, in that he didn’t explore wide styles or approaches to songwriting. But this pure folk music, plain and simple, and his lyrical content carries much of his discography’s potency, which is an expected feature of classic folk music but a unique feat for me (I’m not a huge “lyric guy”).
#5 — BUFFALO SKINNERS: THE ASCH RECORDINGS, VOL. 4 (1999)
Favorite track: “Cowboy Waltz”
THE ASCH RECORDINGS records compiled, as mentioned in the introduction, the vast bulk of the many songs that Guthrie recorded for Moe Asch’s Folkways record label, then named for the producer’s last name. In fact, they also represent the most extensive selection of Guthrie’s original material, period. Due to their similar place in time and style, it’s a bit hard to distinguish each of the four volumes of THE ASCH RECORDINGS, especially since they all carry a couple dozen tracks or so across more than an hour of listening time. But when it comes down to it, each volume’s songs are sort of united around a similar theme, or at least I’m able to identify how many great tracks are on each of THE ASCH RECORDINGS. So in that case, BUFFALO SKINNERS is the weakest of the collection. “Cowboy Waltz” is a standout track, as a purely instrumental song, and its tone is unique among the others it accompanies on this collection. “Snow Deer” is a close second for its romantic and fittingly sweet sound.
#4 — MULESKINNER BLUES: THE ASCH RECORDINGS, VOL. 2 (1997)
Favorite track: “Stagger Lee”
Guthrie’s version of “Stagger Lee” perfectly encapsulates the timelessness that he brought to even old, traditional folk songs. The thrum of his guitar and his rolling voice just tap into some kind of current of American storytelling, and I suppose that could be said for the whole of his work. Although it’s the standout track of MULESKINNER BLUES: THE ASCH RECORDINGS, VOL. 2, “Stagger Lee” is not alone in communicating that appeal. However, MULESKINNER BLUES does carry an assortment of “lesser” Guthrie songs, at least in relation to the upper half of this list’s collection of his albums.
#3 — THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND: THE ASCH RECORDINGS, VOL. 1 (1997)
Favorite track: “Jesus Christ”
The ASCH RECORDINGS compilation series wisely led its first volume with the title of Guthrie’s most popular song. But even though it’s iconic, and more incisive than many give it credit for, “This Land Is Your Land” is not the best track on THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND. No, that honor goes to “Jesus Christ,” a song that uses the language of modern figures (bankers and cops) to link the son of God’s story to modern problems, a connection Guthrie explicitly makes in a later verse. Its chorus is one of Guthrie’s “catchiest,” which isn’t always the case. Guthrie wrote poetry set to music, as I see it, and his songs weren’t pop tunes designed to infiltrate your brain. Oh, there were certainly exceptions, especially traditional folk songs that were designed to celebrate and get people dancing. And many of his songs did of course have the affect of resonating with their words, even if by some standards the phrasing was a bit awkward. In any event, THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND has a great number of great songs, but it’s not the strongest collection of THE ASCH RECORDINGS.
#2 — HARD TRAVELIN’: THE ASCH RECORDINGS, VOL. 3 (1998)
Favorite track: “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore”
That distinction goes to HARD TRAVELIN’, the third volume in THE ASCH RECORDINGS and my favorite of the bunch. In fact, it was somewhat randomly the first Guthrie album I listened to, beyond “This Land Is Your Land” and a general knowledge of the kind of music he made and its influence on later artists. But that early exposure does not obscure the fact that HARD TRAVELIN’, across its 27 songs, offers nearly the best Guthrie experience. It has its protest songs, its traditional folk songs, its look-back-at-history songs, and indeed, its fun songs. “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” also falls into a sense of the blues, tied as it is to commentary on Great Depression troubles. HARD TRAVELIN’ gives a more expansive view of the scope of Guthrie’s achievements and appeal, even if it’s not necessarily the “tightest.”
#1 — DUST BOWL BALLADS (1940)
Favorite track: “Blowin’ Down This Road (I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way)”
And that distinction (of being the tightest and best) goes to DUST BOWL BALLADS, Guthrie’s first album and really the only one set down as a planned, cohesive listen. That’s all the more impressive considering that, in 1940, the idea of a “long-playing,” cohesive album (before LPs) was somewhat foreign, even though, due to technical limitations at the time, the whole experience did have to be broken out into multiple records. Guthrie, after achieving some renown informed by his years moving through the depths of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl fallout, recorded his work with Victor Records. Some of DUST BOWL BALLADS’ songs would be recorded for Asch a few years later (such as “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,”) but those are different renditions. With DUST BOWL BALLADS, Guthrie was able to capture the soulfulness, the wit, and the power of his style of folk music. Armed with his guitar (that machine that kills fascists) and voice (which is not technically beautiful, but hey, neither is Bob Dylan’s), Guthrie was able to bring his poetic mind and thrumming sound to bear on important topics of the day. It was a kind of activism that informed a whole generation of musicians, and today, it still plays like something out of time, a connection to humanity and struggle that is certainly not foreign in today’s hyper-capitalist climate. Guthrie’s criticism of the “gamblers” that ruined this country, appreciation for the farmers and poor people affected by incredible economic strife, and ability to bring those concepts to a pervasive, stripped-down sound deservedly mark him as one of the greatest musicians of all time. And DUST BOWL BALLADS was his greatest achievement, a humane manifesto and historical document that also happens to impart its intellectual and emotional impact through the power of simple, satisfying music.