When most people think of Woody Guthrie — if they think of him at all — one of two descriptions comes to mind: 1) the songwriter who penned the patriotic anthem most of us sang in grade school, "This Land is Your Land," or 2) the subversive, socialist-sympathizing, hobo folksinger who produced some of America's greatest protest songs.
Both descriptions are correct, and a gargantuan new box set, Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot, brings the two sides of this hugely influential poet for the common man seamlessly together.
Guthrie spent his early career documenting the struggles of the working poor during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, he migrated from his home in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma to Texas, California and eventually New York City. Along the way he befriended famous political leftists, including writer John Steinbeck, actor Will Geer, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and fellow folksinger Pete Seeger.
In California, Guthrie wrote a column for the Communist newspaper People's World, and in New York he hosted a radio show in which he introduced listeners to one of his busking friends, the African-American folksinger Lead Belly. But by the 1940s, Guthrie, by then a well-documented radical leftist, was actually working for the U.S. government, writing marketing material for an FDR-created power company project and preserving his music and interviews for the Library of Congress.
This handsome box set — six CDs of songs and chats with Lomax, a DVD on the making of a Bonneville Power Administration documentary, a 78 RPM vinyl recording of Bob Dylan singing a Guthrie song and a 56-page illustrated book and timeline — includes everything Guthrie recorded for the federal government. It was timed to coincide with the singer's 100th birthday in 2012.
For Guthrie fans, it's a treasure trove that features extended conversations with the singer and songwriter about his life, as well as recordings of some of his greatest songs ("Pastures of Plenty," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Do Re Mi," "Jesus Christ," "Pretty Boy Floyd"), his Bonneville material ("Roll on Columbia"), labor union songs in support of the U.S. World War II effort ("The Girl in the Red, White and Blue," "Farmer-Labor Train") and some pretty funny — and mercifully brief — public service ditties about soldiers and sexually transmitted diseases ("The VeeDee Blues," "Blessed and Curst").
What's remarkable about this material is how much Guthrie was able to convey about both his love of this country and his disdain for politicians and business tycoons who don't care about common Americans, including poor folks and racial minorities. As Pete Seeger notes in the DVD, "Only as years passed [did] I realize the subtleties of Woody's words, 'My pastures of plenty must always be free.' It was a complaint, a protest, but an affirmation, too. Of course, this was Woody's genius. He could get these different sides of a problem all in one simple song. Other people might have had to write a book."