This is a tribute album to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly by a wide-rang of top recording artists, including Bob Dylan, U2 and Brian Wilson. Guthrie’s long-time business manager, Harold Leventhal produced the album in 1988. It won the Grammy Award – Best Traditional Folk Recording – that year. The full tracking list is available at the end of this review.
Woody Guthrie has always been Bob Dylan’s hero; “my last idol” he claimed. When he managed to meet Woody in person, he was so overjoyed that he told everyone about it. Dylan was then 19 and was about to start his professional career from Greenwich Village. Woody was in a New Jersey hospital, suffering from Huntington’s disease. He departs in 1967. Dylan wrote songs about Woody Guthrie and at his 30th anniversary concert, he chose Song to Woody as his finale of the night.
Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma and shared his life with the people who were thrown into the bottom of the society in the years of Great Depression. He learned to sing from his mother who passed away when Woody was 14. At age 19, he moves to Texas and marries Mary Jennings. But with the Dust Bowl damaging their prairie, he leaves behind his wife and joins thousands of Okies who abandoned their farmlands and moved to California.
In this album, John Mellencamp sings Do-Re-Mi.
If you ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee
Have you seen the 1976 biographical film of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory? Then you know what Do-Re-Mi means. There is a scene where penny-less Okies are turned away by the police at a state border of California. For those who had the Do-Re-Mi, they were sent to refugee camps.
One of my favourite songs is Hobo’s Lullaby which Emmylou Harris sings so gently. Pretty Boy Floyd is based on a real-life bank robber, Charles Arthur Floyd who was active in the Midwest. He was popular with the ordinary people as this outlaw destroyed their loan-notes every time he robbed a bank. And Guthrie is unsympathetic to the bankers either.
I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen
During his time in Los Angeles, he had a regular programme on KFVD radio station. Its owner was a New Deal Democrat and he was very fond of Woody’s work. Using this channel, he could write and release anti-establishment songs. When totalitarianism was spreading fast in Europe, he put a message on his guitar; “This machine kills fascists” and played it.
The Communist Party in America was then adopting the popular front line and they approached artists and celebrities like Woody Guthrie. If you read Being Red by Howard Fast, you know that he was a sympathiser for sometime too. And Woody did not hesitate to get closer, either. When a friend warned him that he is getting involved in left-wing politics, he replied. “Left-wing or chicken wing, doesn’t matter to me”.
At the request of the State Department, he wrote songs like Roll on Columbia and Grand Coulee Dam to support the New Deal programmes (not included in this album). There are many tunes about workers and trade unions. However, I have not heard a song that praises political parties. Perhaps that was the line he drew? After the conclusion of Hitler-Stalin Pact, intelligensias like Daniel Bell depart the Communist Party. How did Woody see such events?
What is badly missing in this album is Deportees/Plane Wreck At Los Gatos which Guthrie wrote in 1948. 27 years later, Bob Dylan sang this song with Joan Baez in their Rolling Thunder Review Tour (Pity that Youtube clips have now been all removed). It is based on a radio news that he heard from his bed in hospital that 28 Mexican illegal migrant workers were killed in a plane crash on their deportation from California. The radio just said “deportees” but Woody put names to those undocumented workers and says his farewell.
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be “deportees
And he goes on to question the system of American agriculture that is dependent on these migrant workers.
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
The same question is even more valid today and not only confined to the United States.
Woody Guthrie’s life was free and unrestrained throughout. He was never controlled by the state or a political party and was not under attack by McCarthy’s red baiting. Record companies, media and intellectuals could not interfere with what he did or direct him what to say. In that sense, he was unique and lucky.
I often think about Bob Dylan and the series of changes that he went through in his approach to song-writing and performances. It has always been puzzling and confusing to me.
As a man who was first renowned as a folk protest singer, he was condemned by his own loyal fans at the 1965 New Port Folk Festival as he stood on the stage with his electric guitar. Later he leans onto country music (Nashville Skyline). In the 70s, he leads a political campaign to free Hurricane Rubin Carter who “the authorities came to blame for something that he has never done” (Desire). Finally, he becomes a born-again Christian (Slow Train Coming, Saved) for a period in the 80s. That moment was in fact my departure from this great poet and rock artist of the 20th Century.
With all the fame and fortune that he earned, still Dylan could not feel the freedom and the free-wheeling life that Woody Guthrie lived through. Perhaps that is why he often struggled and zig-zagged his way. If I ever get a chance to meet Dylan, I would ask him if my observation is correct.
If you want to know more about Woody Guthrie, a book written by Joe Klein titled “Woody Guthrie – A Life” is an excellent introduction to follow this man’s life. Arts Theatre, London West End will feature “Woody Sez – The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie” from 13 January to 2 April 2011.
Tracking List – Folkways – A Vision Shared
1. “Sylvie” (Leadbelly) – Sweet Honey in the Rock – 2:01
2. “Pretty Boy Floyd” (Woody Guthrie) – Bob Dylan – 4:34
3. “Do Re Mi” (Woody Guthrie) – John Mellencamp – 3:23
4. “I Ain’t Got No Home” (Woody Guthrie) – Bruce Springsteen – 3:40
5. “Jesus Christ” (Woody Guthrie) – U2 – 3:13
6. “Rock Island Line” (Leadbelly) – Little Richard with Fishbone – 2:32
7. “East Texas Red” (Woody Guthrie) – Arlo Guthrie – 5:34
1. “Philadelphia Lawyer” (Woody Guthrie) – Willie Nelson – 2:59
2. “Hobo’s Lullaby” (Goebel Reeves; performed by Woody Guthrie) – Emmylou Harris – 2:41
3. “The Bourgeois Blues” (Leadbelly) – Taj Mahal – 2:43
4. “Grey Goose” (traditional; performed by Leadbelly) – Sweet Honey in the Rock – 2:07
5. “Goodnight, Irene” (Leadbelly) – Brian Wilson – 2:38
6. “Vigilante Man” (Woody Guthrie) – Bruce Springsteen – 4:09
7. “This Land Is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie) – Pete Seeger with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Doc Watson & The Little Red School House Chorus – 3:45
*Translated and edited from Japanese blog post.