Hard to believe that Woody Guthrie, conceivably, could still be alive in 2012, given that he’s been gone for 45 years. Yet his incomparable work, especially circa 1939-1949, and the indomitable spirit of that work, a Big Bang of social-consciousness-in-song that set off reverberations down through history – from Dylan and Ochs and the whole early ’60s folk revival and on to Joe Strummer’s righteous punk rebellion – resonates still, as long as repression, corruption, and abuse of power still flourish.
Guthrie himself would no doubt get a chuckle at how his legacy has played out, especially the seemingly endless stream of “product” gleaned in his name, stemming from what amounts to a hard-hitting but ragtag set of field recordings and radio transcriptions. The lavish, coffee-table artifact Woody At 100 is a different animal, though, compared to the plain-jane documents that have cropped up in the copyright-free era. A three-disc set featuring some newly discovered recordings, its centerpiece might be the stylish, 150-page scrapbook, collecting original Guthrie artwork, contemporary paintings and drawings, photos, lyric manuscripts, record sleeves, and more, plus detailed notes by Guthrie scholars Robert Santelli and Jeff Place, bringing the artist’s life and times into sharp focus.
As you might suspect, the first two discs here represent a kind of glorified best-of-Woody: “This Land Is Your Land”, “Pastures Of Plenty”, “Jesus Christ”, “Hard Travelin’”, “Pretty Boy Floyd” – along with Guthrie’s mythical, insinuating mix of ramblin’ songs, labour ballads, kids’ tunes, and historical narratives. Sparks fly on the third disc, which features 21 previously unheard performances and six heretofore undiscovered songs culled from five separate radio programs.
Centrepiece of the new material is a four-song Los Angeles “Presto-disc” radio broadcast from 1939 (or 1937, as its origin is in some question). In any case, Guthrie is sprightly on these recordings, which now stand as the earliest-known recordings of his career, bringing out the Carter Family cadences on an almost-jaunty “I Ain’t Got No Home”, leading into “Do Re Mi” with a honking train-track harmonica run. “Skid Row Serenade” and “Them Big City Ways”, previously unheard originals both, are sharply drawn caricatures, the latter sporting a line that surely resonates in 2012: “The finance company right next door, got his paycheck and then got some more.”
And therein lies the hook: those who would willfully write off Guthrie as a relic, locked into musty history, might take a look at the state of the world circa 2012, then listen hard: “The gambling man is rich, and the working man is poor” (“I Ain’t Got No Home”); “Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen” (“Pretty Boy Floyd”); “Every good man gets a little hard luck sometimes” (“New York Town”); “You will never find peace with these fascists” (“Jarama Valley”). On and on it goes – in fact, you can play this game all day long, pulling random Guthrie lyrics out of thin air, fully out of context, then realising it’s as relevant, somewhere, somehow, in the here-and-now as it was the day that it was written.
That’s the hallmark of a visionary, a seer: the lines between rich and poor, capital and labour, power and the unprivileged, good and evil, Guthrie explored them all with an insistent moralistic bent. But when he dug even deeper, as in the dark poetry of “1913 Massacre”, an account of the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, Michigan in which scores of striking copper miners and their families died (and the melody of which Bob Dylan borrowed for his tribute, “Song To Woody”), Guthrie zoomed past mere narrative, grasping at the uncanny that sometimes accompanies wickedness – in this case, by juxtaposing joy with suffering, the innocence of children with the evil of greed – reckoning the event’s tragic consequences, disturbingly, with chilling aplomb.