- Album name: The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie
- Artist name: Various, including Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, The Weavers, Odetta, Country Joe MacDonald, The Babysitters, Jack Elliott, Jim Kweskin, Joan Baez, Sonny Terry
- Year: 1972
- Number of discs: two
- Label: Vanguard Recording Society
- Collection: Friedman
- Buy it on Amazon: $29.99
Level of familiarity before listening
I’ve never listened to this compilation before, and haven’t reviewed any Woody Guthrie records yet, but he has come up several times in other reviews, as he tends to do, and I have reviewed a few that involved his son. I recognize around half of the song names on this record, and most of the artists.
What I expected
Folk, and covers of Woody Guthrie’s folk songs in various styles.
What it was actually like
Remember when I reviewed Willie and Family Live by Willie Nelson (1978) last summer and thought it was weird that they doubled up on one of the songs?
Whiskey River is a terrific song, but it was slightly weird that it somehow got included on this record twice: as the first song on side one, and then again as the second to last song on side four. I guess they just really liked it?
Well, I guess that This Land Is Your Land is so thoroughly associated with Woodie Guthrie that they just had to make it the first song on the first side of this double record and the last song on the fourth side.
Every single time that I ever hear God Bless America or This Land Is Your Land, by the way, I am always reminded of two facts: first, that Guthrie composed the latter after getting sick of hearing the former on the radio all the time, which is amazing; and second, that my grandparents loved both of them dearly. In fact, as I wrote when reviewing Yankee Doodle Mickey (1980):
As I listened to God Bless America, it occurred to me that it must have been my grandmother’s favorite song in the world, but then when I got to This Land Is Your Land, I immediately knew that it was her other favorite.
And when I reviewed Live 1975–85 by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (1986), I wrote about it:
His cover of Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land Is Your Land was uncommonly and almost impossibly terrible…
Anyway, the first version was Guthrie’s own and the second was the Weavers’, which was very good, but I really do like hearing it as a sparse folk song. The Weavers, by the way, were great throughout this, especially on So Long – It’s Been Good to Know Yuh. They were also responsible for the most surprising song, Jackhammer John. I would not consider it an easy task to turn an acoustic folk song into Oompa Loompa, but they were very skilled (and it had a good banjo solo, too).
900 Miles was another that was included twice – back to back, first as Woody’s Rag & 900 Miles and then on its own. And I’m glad to report that it was not I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), because the only thing more jarring than a Scottish accent in music is a bad impression of a Scottish accent in music.
Do Re Mi came up recently when I reviewed Ry Cooder (1970), but this version by Cisco Houston was way better. I especially loved his country fiddle on that song and on Curly Headed Baby, and his mandolin on Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).
All of the Odetta songs were great, but I especially thought that Pastures of Plenty stood out, and I would like to hear her languid interpretations of every Guthrie song.
Besides the Weavers and Odetta, Country Joe MacDonald’s songs were an extremely pleasant surprise. They were more in a folk rock and country rock style (including drums). I really liked the steel guitar and piano in his Roll On Columbia, and his very lively folk-rock Tom Joad was one of the best songs on the record. Blowing Down That Old Dusty Road was also a highlight in that style, up tempo and with drums and steel guitar, though his slower When the Curfew Blows was still great.
Joan Baez’s Pretty Boy Floyd absolutely rocked, so maybe there’s something about other groups covering this song? Here is what I wrote about it when reviewing Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds (1968) (which became one of my favorite records after hearing it for the first time last October):
When they got to Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, though, giving it a bit of a bluegrass sound with banjo and some slightly Oompa Loompa guitar… I want to be respectful to Guthrie, but the Byrds didn’t just take it to another level, but took it to ten other levels that he never even imagined.
I can’t recall the name of the Jack Elliott documentary that I watched twenty years ago this summer, which made the case that Elliott was the link between Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but I certainly felt that link when Elliott’s Talking Fishing Blues came on: it was extremely evocative of Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ New York, which I guess was highly intentional on Dylan’s part.
A Group Of Children’s Songs was the worst part of the record, and it strikes me that, given all the many similarities (even if superficial) between children’s music and folk music, if I were a folk musician, I would probably try to downplay that connection instead of highlighting it, but whatever. Interestingly, (Take Me) Riding in My Car came up when I reviewed Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert (1964):
On the other hand, they do a lot of children’s songs, and I’m not a child so I’m much less into those. This two-record album would have been far better if they had thought to group all of those – Car-Car, Puff, the Magic Dragon and It’s Raining – on one of the four sides.
So it’s good to know that I was on to something with that idea. And Grassey Grass Grass, for what it’s worth, barely even qualified as a song at all.
This record was awesome, but everything I’ve already written about it does not even get to the best part of it, which is that not a single one of Guthrie’s great songs was ruined by a “creative” interpretation: there was no easy-listening-disco-reggae Guthrie here, just folk Guthrie interpreted in folk, country and rock styles by himself and by other artists working in those traditions.
One thing that surprised me negatively, however, was that certain songs that I associate very strongly with Guthrie were completely missing: where was Grand Coulee Dam, which would have let me point out that Lonnie Donegan did the best cover version of it? And where was It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song, which would have let me explore all the different takes on the Carter Family’s Worried Man Blues. Oh well, maybe next time?
5/5: love it
|↑1||I also mentioned this wonderful story in a footnote when reviewing Stars and Stripes Forever! by University of Michigan Symphony Band and H. Robert Reynolds (1983).|
|↑2||Not “Odessa,” Siri – that’s something else entirely.|
|↑3||My favorite of hers is Santy Anno, which was one of my favorite “San Francisco songs” when I lived there from 2011 to 2013. If you ever doubt that her voice is perfect, listen to that song and then listen to this cover of it, which is also excellent, but note that the singer’s (still very strong) voice feels a bit thinner and even pointier at the high notes, where Odetta’s is so beautifully smooth and rounded. She also reminds me of Umm Kulthum in that way, though I listen to the latter far more often now.|
|↑4||On that note, I would really like to hear a mashup of Worried Man Blues and Gotta Travel On.|