It’s impossible to imagine the direction American roots music would’ve taken without Woody Guthrie. As a songwriter and interpreter, his presence looms over this country’s music, including rock ‘n’ roll. The scope of his repertoire is unparalleled, and the very spirit of Guthrie’s music is quintessentially American in all the best ways: brimming with promise, encompassing the great joys and sorrows that come with the ongoing struggle for a better world, and best of all, musical populism at its finest—these discs are full of melodies even the most tone-deaf of us can sing along to.
The release of The Asch Recordings in the late ‘90s seemed like the final word on Woody Guthrie: more than 100 songs laid out on four compact discs, with good sound and engaging, informative booklets. It was easily the most comprehensive Guthrie collection ever assembled, an American folk history lesson and a whole lot of fun at the same time. A decade later, My Dusty Road mines the same treasure trove—roughly 250 songs, all recorded in a few weeks in the spring of 1944—with mixed results. Again, we get four loosely thematic CDs, packaged this time in a clever but impractical suitcase. The 68-page booklet provides a detailed (and very educational) essay on the discovery and restoration of the masters, but the song-by-song commentary rarely approaches the depth of coverage achieved by the Asch liner notes. (With good reason: too many of the tracks don’t demand it, enjoyable though they may be.) The real draw here is the sound, a result of pristine masters and better technology than we had 10 years ago. And it’s a legitimate attraction: these recordings sound clearer without feeling stripped of any of their history. From the first notes of “This Land Is Your Land”, I guarantee you have never heard 65-year-old recordings that sound this good.
The overall presentation of My Dusty Road, however, falls far short of the standard achieved by The Asch Recordings. Touted as the flagship release in something called “The Woody Guthrie Legacy Series” (about which I’ve been able to find zero information), this set should theoretically be either a modestly-priced sampler or a comprehensive, lavish collection. Instead, it’s an overpriced box set that only skims the surface of Guthrie’s output, with half as many songs as The Asch Recordings. Presumably so Rounder could also issue the four discs as LPs, each CD is skimpy, running between 30 and 40 minutes and including 12 to 15 songs. Naturally, there’s also a half dozen previously unavailable recordings scattered throughout the set. Apparently not even Woody Guthrie is immune to collector bait on a “best-of” CD, as the first disc, Woody’s “Greatest” Hits, reveals a song called “Bad Repetation”. It’s an alright song, but is it a greater hit than “Pastures of Plenty”, “Roll On Columbia”, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”, “I Ain’t Got No Home”, “Car Car”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “Tom Joad”, “The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done” or “1913 Massacre”? Because none of those appears on My Dusty Road, and any one of them would’ve made more sense. Despite “Bad Repetation” and not one but two versions of “Going Down the Road”, this first disc is still the best of the box. It’s hard to argue with the likes of “Philadelphia Lawyer”, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and “Jesus Christ”.
The third and fourth discs are less satisfying overall. Woody the Agitator is surprisingly dull, and Woody, Cisco and Sonny is enjoyable—particularly the “Square Dance Medley”—but mostly fluffy. The former has too few hands-down classics, and the latter has a lot of instrumentals, which are fine in terms of painting a well-rounded portrait of Guthrie the recording artist, but the improved sound already helps to highlight his prowess as a player. The instrumentals feel like filler, which only draws attention to the great vocal and songwriting triumphs missing from this set. And besides, there are performances featuring Woody, Cisco, and Sonny on the other discs as well.
The second disc, however—Woody’s Roots—is almost as good as the first. It makes clear the role Guthrie played in providing a bridge between older American (and British Isles) folk music and the stuff that became hugely popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. No fewer than four Carter Family songs grace the disc, and at least a few of the tracks were later recorded by Dylan. (The latter connection is actually present throughout the set. Compare, for instance, Guthrie’s line in “Grand Coulee Dam” about the “misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray” to Dylan’s in “Chimes of Freedom” about “the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail”.) These are the cream of American folk songs: the chilling “Buffalo Skinners”, the equestrian ballad “Stewball”, and the enduring character tales of “Stackolee”, “Gypsy Davy”, and “John Henry”. It’s instructive to hear Guthrie in any context, but this stuff might be the clearest proof we have that he was the finest folksinger we’ve ever had.
And that’s why My Dusty Road, even if it’s not the most worthwhile Guthrie collection out there, isn’t a total failure. It does, after all, include many of his most famous and important songs, in the best sound we’re likely to hear for quite some time. It was obviously compiled with love and good intentions, but there’s no excuse for putting two and a half hours of music on four CDs and gouging consumers for the cost of producing an admittedly striking box. Not when the bulk of the performances on the discs appear in a more thorough and just as listenable older collection. But of course it’s still Woody Guthrie, and if this box set gives someone an excuse to introduce themselves to him, it can’t be all bad.