The great American troubadour Woody Guthrie, who wrote our “second national anthem,” “This Land Is Your Land,” would have turned 100 this Saturday, had Huntington’s chorea not claimed him in 1967, after a decade of bedridden decline. To honor the Oklahoma-born Dust Bowl poet, Smithsonian Folkways has issued an extraordinarily handsome and informative box set, “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.”
The LP-sized box contains three CDs with 57 tracks, including 21 previously unreleased performances, six never-released songs and a 150-page book loaded with black-and-white photos, original album-cover art, Guthrie’s excellent brush-and-ink artwork, excerpts from typewritten manuscripts, track-by-track commentary and a fine essay by co-producer and Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place.
The set begins with an eye-opening alternate version of “This Land Is Your Land,” revealing that this Whitmanesque celebration of the American vista actually began as a populist protest song written as an “answer” to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” in reaction to all the “Private Property” signs Guthrie encountered on a 1940 road trip. Without benefit of a hit record, the song nonetheless seeped into the American consciousness, like a true folk song, by word-of-mouth, via campfires, schoolrooms and singalongs.
But there were so many other songs! Here you can enjoy the haiku-concise balladry of “Philadelphia Lawyer”; the strikingly relevant anti-bank sentiments of “Pretty Boy Floyd” (“You will never see an outlaw drive a family from their home”); “Hard Travelin’s” vivid, itinerant workforce detail; the stirring Dust Bowl anthem, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”; and songs like “Hard, Ain’t It Hard,” which baby boomers discovered through ’60s folk revivalists the Kingston Trio.
The lesser-known work is just as rewarding: the haunting “I’ve Got to Know”; the topical Illinois mining-disaster song, “Talking Centralia”; and a cowboy song that actually includes women, “The Rangers Command.” And then there are the irresistible kids’ ditties – also campfire classics – “Riding in My Car” and “Why, Oh Why.” The third CD unearths Guthrie’s first recordings and some fascinating radio ephemera.
Guthrie’s romanticized public image was that of an untutored country wisecracker (a sort of progressive Will Rogers) who rambled about the country working odd jobs and riding the rails. Though he roamed, to be sure – he was known to up and disappear from time to time – in reality, Guthrie was a public intellectual, political activist and urban folk poet who, like his most famous heir, Bob Dylan, used the commercial recording industry to reach people. This welcome box set makes all that – and more – very clear, while honoring one of America’s musical geniuses at a moment when his message could not be more timely.