Music

Woody Guthrie: My Dusty Road

It's no replacement for The Asch Recordings, but the sound quality is revelatory. And besides, it's Woody Guthrie.


Woody Guthrie

My Dusty Road

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2009-08-25
UK Release Date: 2009-10-05
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image