I can understand some people not liking classical music. Likewise jazz, or rap, or heavy metal. But I think that everybody would like the music of Woody Guthrie. His folk style has a universality that transcends cultures, education, nationalities and age-groups. Woody Guthrie wrote music that appeals in its deceptive simplicity and its underlying message. And he just happens to be the most influential musician of American popular music.
Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, an early oil boom town, in 1912. From an early age, he was a keen observer of the little things that make up daily life. His own early life was a series of tragedies. His treasured sister Clara died when he was young. His father suffered financial ruin, his mother became mentally ill and institutionalized (a condition that would later catch up with Woody), his hometown became a dustbowl and the Great Depression made paupers and refugees out of millions.
Woody found himself forever fleeing misfortune, and developed a lifelong taste for travelling. He walked, rode and hitchiked to California, where he found himself part of the unwelcome masses fleeing poverty. Many of his songs are from the point of view of the outsider and the traveller.
He supported himself writing and singing songs, the variety immensely wide. He is best-known for his social and protest songs, songs championing the plight of the underdog. He became involved with the trade union movement and strongly supported the United States' entering the second World War against Fascism.
His most famous song, This Land is Your Land
is probably the most sung song in the United States. It has even been suggested as the new National Anthem and was actually written to counter the militant Star Spangled Banner
. LYRICS TO THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
But there is so much more to Woody Guthrie. He wrote two volumes of children's songs, Songs to Grow On, Nursery Days
written for his own children. He wrote short comic pieces, cowboy songs (precursor to the Country and Western style) ballads, and poetry set to music, all born from his experience with people undergoing the worst hardships.
Moses (Moe) Asch was a collector of all things original and talented, whether or not it had commercial value. He recorded many folk musicians, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly being the most successful. His record label Folkways (now part of Smithsonian Folkways) put Woody Guthrie into the living rooms of millions around the world. Asches studio in New York was always open the Guthrie, who would wander in unannounced and Asch would record whatever Guthrie had at the time. In time, the collaboration would produce almost 5 hours of music, now collected as the Asch recordings.
The Asch Recordings includes almost everything Guthrie ever wrote and sang, divided into four volumes (all of which can be bought individually:
But if you really want to immerse yourself in Woody Guthrie, the entire boxed set is a treasure and better value too. This is the music that changed the course of American popular music. It is impossible to imagine Bob Dylan and the entire 60's folk revival without Woody Guthrie. Country and Western owes much to Guthrie. More recently, Billy Bragg has released a Guthrie tribute CD.
This set is not all easy listening. Some of the recordings are of poor quality, with audible hiss and scratches. And almost five hours of Woody Guthrie is a little too much to digest in one sitting. But in shorter sittings, there is a simple innocence, a dry humour and a deceptive emotional complexity that makes this music addictively appealing.
The handsome boxed set includes the four CDs, each with a 32 page booklet containing a biography of Guthrie, archival photographs and detailed notes on each track explaining the historical context of each song. Its fascinating stuff.
On a sad note, Woody Guthrie died from a devastating illness called Huntington's Chorea, inherited from his mother, an illness that slowly destroys muscle control and mental functioning. Those affected usually die in their 50's after years of suffering.
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