American original

Songwriter Woody Gunthrie loved his nation and its working men. All these years later, a pair of tribute albums shows the affection was and is mutual.


He wrote and recorded some of the most memorable American songs of the last century, yet never had a hit single, or cared much about cutting one.

He was fiercely patriotic, wrote admiringly about the land and its people, and fought passionately against fascism in the Second World War. Yet he was attacked for his politics and his populism, and nearly branded a traitor during the McCarthy era.

His name is known to almost every pop fan, yet few own his recordings. His acolytes include everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Ani DiFranco, yet he's seldom considered as inescapable an influence as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or Bob Marley.

But then, Woody Guthrie never fit neatly into pigeonholes.

"Woody Guthrie was the first alternative musician," writes singer Billy Bragg in the liner notes to "Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II" (Elektra 62522, arriving in stores today). "While Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were busy peddling escapism to the masses, Woody was out there writing songs ... that captured the awesome majesty of America's scenery and the dry-as-dust humor of its working folk."

In other words, Guthrie worked outside the mainstream to capture the reality of American life, much as modern musical malcontents do.

Maybe that's why, 33 years after his death, his songs still seem compelling. Although Guthrie's sound lags several generations behind the sample-and-loop aesthetic of hip-hop and modern rock, his songs are the focus of two new albums: " 'Til We Outnumber 'Em" (Righteous Babe RBR-019), an all-star tribute recorded live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and the aforementioned "Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II," in which Bragg and the band Wilco provide new music for 15 rediscovered Guthrie songs.

Also a show

Nor are Guthrie Appreciation activities restricted to the CD shelves. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History just opened a new show entitled, "This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie." The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 13, includes unreleased recordings of music and interviews as well as film footage, which will likely provide many with their very first opportunity to see and hear Guthrie.

Given how widely known Guthrie's songs are -- his "This Land Is Your Land" has rightly been called the United States' unofficial national anthem, while such songs as "Union Maid," "Roll On, Columbia" and "Reuben James" have become folk standards -- how is it that he himself has remained relatively unfamiliar to pop fans?

Although his contribution to American musical culture is on par with those of jazz-man Louis Armstrong, country pioneer Jimmie Rogers and blues legend Robert Johnson, Guthrie's legacy was not as linked to recordings as the others' were. His recording career started almost by accident, when musicologist Alan Lomax recorded and interviewed him for the Library of Congress in 1940. His last recording sessions took place just 12 years later.

During that time, Guthrie recorded sides for RCA Victor, Keynote Records and the Bonneville Power Administration(!), but did the bulk of his recordings for Folkways Records, a small, ideologically driven company operated by folklorist Moses Asch. To his credit, Asch kept Guthrie's recordings permanently in print, but Folkways was so small and poorly distributed that only the most dedicated listeners sought its albums.

Since 1987, the Folkways catalog has been under the aegis of the Smithsonian's Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage. Last year, Smithsonian/Folkways issued "The Asch Recordings" (SFW 40112), a four-CD set compiling 105 Guthrie performances. It's a massive overview, including everything from the definitive "This Land Is Your Land" to his children's songs, as well as protest numbers and such historical ballads as "Buffalo Skinners" and "Pretty Boy Floyd."

The performances are lean. On most tracks, the only accompaniment is Guthrie's guitar and the occasional tapping of his foot. But Guthrie was very much a less-is-more kind of performer, and there's so much wit, charm and charisma, it's clear he could have been a pop star had he wanted to be.

Guthrie could sound conversational even when carrying a tune, and that gave him tremendous latitude as a story-teller. He could be silly and serious in equal measure, and managed to make the great truths in his songs seem like simple common sense. And it seemed that there was no topic he couldn't address in song. On "The Asch Recordings," Guthrie gives us everything from the childlike silliness of "Car Song" to the rabble-rousing vituperation of "1913 Massacre," and manages to charm and entertain us every time.

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