Release Date: Oct 22, 2013
Record label: Rounder
Genre(s): Political Folk, Protest Songs, Traditional Folk, Field Recordings
Woody Guthrie was inducted into the US Army, wrote for a Communist party publication and composed songs attacking bankers. A man who hated his country? Don't be ridiculous. He wanted change but loved America, as shown by this remarkable box set of material recorded for the US government. There are the unedited Library of Congress sessions, including relaxed, lengthy interviews about his early life and the dustbowl era, along with traditional material and bravely radical songs such as Jesus Christ.
If I had my way, every one of the millions of people who fell in love with Mumford & Sons’ newest album, Babel, would get the urge to go a little deeper and figure out why it touched them and kindled something they could perhaps feel, but not quite grasp. It’s a journey that would take them past The Avett Brothers and Deer Tick and right through Wilco, Bob Dylan and The Band to somewhere more essential and deep-rooted than any other music has ever traveled to. It’s a journey that could only end with Woody Guthrie.
In 2008, during a cross-country move from North Carolina to Nevada, I stopped for lunch in Okemah, Oklahoma, the hometown of Woody Guthrie. It was right off the interstate, but once you were off the main road, the town seemed its own world. Compact but complete, it had small roads spotted with houses, a main strip with banners hung on streetlights celebrating Guthrie (the only apparent nod to the folk singer I found on that quick trip), and a storefront downtown where I found a restaurant.
Woody Guthrie’s recording career began when he was 27 and lasted only 10 years, and yet, nearly 50 years after his death, he remains one of the most fascinating figures in American history. Surveys of his life and work still manage to produce fresh revelations, and American Radical Patriot, Rounder Records’ just-released collection of government-related Guthrie recordings, provides extraordinary new insight into the complex mind of this simple-sounding folk icon. With six CDs, a documentary DVD and a 78-rpm disc — packaged as a photo album with a 60-page edition of the downloadable 258-page book by Rounder Records co-founder and box producer Bill Nowlin (included as a PDF on disc 1) — it is, as a friend noted, “a lot to digest.
Woody Guthrie was not a simple man, and he was driven by energies and demons that even he often didn't understand, but he persisted, pushing himself across every possible creative medium of the times, and his life's work, which begins with his songs (but covers so much more, including an iconic autobiography that was later turned into a movie), made him into one of the most important and vital American artists of the 20th century. He defined an era and culture in transition in his Dust Bowl ballads, outlaw tales, work and labor songs, antiwar songs, children's songs, political songs, and a host of love songs and songs that touched on philosophy, geography, and the hard work of living day to day in an emerging industrial world. He was kind of a maverick troubadour beat journalist, writing and drawing constantly, and new poems, writings, drawings, and even previously unknown songs and recordings have kept turning up even a decade into the 21st century.