Music

Woody Guthrie: Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection

A new collection offers a stellar overview of folk singer Woody Guthrie's brilliant career.


Woody Guthrie
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Title: Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection
US Release Date: 2012-07-14
UK Release Date: 2012-07-14

July 14, 2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth -- a date that seems remarkable not because it’s so distant, but because it’s so recent. Others born that year include John Cheever, Julia Child, and Michelangelo Antonioni, all artists whose work helped define a decade as recent as the 1960s. But Guthrie’s work is tied eternally to the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. That generational disconnect speaks both to Guthrie’s early success -- he was still in his 20s when he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” and most of the other songs for which he is remembered -- and also to his early demise: he was only 44 years old when he was committed, in 1956, to the first of a series of hospitals where he was treated for the Huntington’s disease that would finally kill him in 1967. *

Listening to Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, the new box set from Smithsonian Folkways, you can hear the distance between Guthrie’s time and our own in the sound of the needle moving through the grooves of the records that serve as its source material. But beneath the pops and crackles you can also hear words and music that might have been written this morning. Take, for example, the opening track, “This Land Is Your Land”. Legend has it Guthrie wrote it as a response to “God Bless America”, Irving Berlin’s still-ubiquitous paean to God and Country. In a way, it succeeded beyond Guthrie’s wildest dreams, becoming almost as well known as Berlin’s song. But, ironically, when it is sung in elementary school classrooms across America, it is usually stripped of its key verses. The first of these, which criticizes the faceless landowners who make up America’s ruling class, is restored on Woody at 100:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property

But on the other side it didn't say nothing,

That side was made for you and me…

But another verse, which attacks the government itself and its feeble efforts to combat poverty, is still missing:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I'd seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

Interestingly, when Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang this song at the celebration for President Obama’s inauguration on the Capital steps, they restored this verse to its place of honor, and Springsteen called it “the greatest song ever written about our home”. Springsteen, of course, has long been Guthrie’s most vocal modern disciple, from the Reagan era masterpiece Nebraska to this year’s Wrecking Ball.

This missing disaffection gets its due in plenty of other songs on Woody at 100, including “Do-Re-Mi”, which tells the story of Okies trying to find a better life in California, and “I Ain’t Got No Home”, on which Woody sings in a ghostly voice: “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore." His guitar was, famously, adorned with the words “This machine kills fascists," a slogan which may have been inspired by fighter planes in the Spanish Civil War.

Amazingly, given how many Guthrie sets there have been to date, the folks at Smithsonian Folkways have found some new songs that make their first appearance here. The most memorable of these is “Them Big City Ways”, about a small town boy who moves to the metropolis and gets repossessed almost out of existence, concluding: “Finance man he runs the town / And then working man he gets run down / That’s what I learned watching them big city ways."

If none of the new songs are essential, they’ll still be a boon to completists, while those who only know Guthrie’s most famous songs will get a much more rounded overview from Woody at 100. If, however, you already own one of the other excellent box sets that have come out in the last decade, including The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 (named for Folkways founder Moses Asch, who recorded Guthrie’s greatest material) or the superlative Rounder set My Dusty Road, then this set is an extravagance you probably don’t need, though the 150 page book that comes with it offers a nice pictorial overview of Guthrie’s career.

* It was in one of these hospitals that an unknown 19-year-old who had recently renamed himself Bob Dylan showed up uninvited to meet his hero, an experience he summed up in the final lines of his poem “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie”:

“…where do you look for this hope that yer seekin' / Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin' / Where do you look for this oil well gushin' / Where do you look for this candle that's glowin' / Where do you look for this hope that you know is there … / You can either go to the church of your choice / Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital / You'll find God in the church of your choice / You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital / And though it's only my opinion / I may be right or wrong /You'll find them both In the Grand Canyon / At sundown."

10

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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