14 July 2008

Happy Birthday Woody!

I am certainly not a Woody Guthrie scholar nor do I intend to summarize his well-documented life. Outside of simply listening to his music my only other real experience with him was during my brief stint as a volunteer in the Smithsonian Folkways Records archives. On my first day, the archivist and all-around super-cool Jeff Place (himself the next best thing to a national archive of musical knowledge) took me into the vaults and pulled out some hand-written lyric sheets signed by Mr. Guthrie himself. I was smitten.

At this point, though, it's probably best just to celebrate his life and his music. He sang about it all. From children's songs to cowboy songs; traditional songs and songs he penned himself. He sang about the plights of the working class and the struggles of immigrants. He sang protest music of the labor unions and he sang pro-war songs in support of World War Two. And he was probably one of the few Americans whose career wasn't destroyed by his association with the Communist Party.

A variation of the traditional tune known also as "Blowin' Down This Road," "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way," "Lonesome Road Blues," and "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad."

A couple classic and traditional cowboy songs. Though Woody never worked as a professional cowboy, his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma, years spent in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa, and many years traveling throughout the Western states brought him in direct contact with those who knew the music best.

Woody helped perpetuate the American Robin Hood, folk hero status of the bank robber and fellow Oklahoman, Charles Arthur Floyd.

A Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston original from 1944.

A couple cover versions. The first is a protest song about the 1948 deaths of twenty-eight illegal immigrants from Mexico. As they were being deported back to Mexico the airplane they were flying in crashed near Los Gatos Canyon in California. Guthrie resented that the newspaper and radio coverage referred to the victims only as deportees and, thus, dehumanized them. In 1969, the Byrds released their version on the album Ballad of Easy Rider.

Next is the great Maddox Brothers & Rose version of "Philadelphia Lawyer," recorded sometime in the late 1940s; a song steeped in folklore on many levels. The title itself refers to a Colonial American lawyer and his victory in defense of the free press. The term has since become part of the never-ending cycle of lawyer jokes that refers to a clever attorneys who might sometimes find themselves a bit overextend or out of their boundaries. This is certainly the case here.

And what Woody Guthrie celebration would be complete without a little dedication by Woody's most celebrated contemporary? From his 1962 self-titled first album.

And, from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 here is a seven-minute spoken word tribute to both Woody Guthrie as well as a "valediction, a formal farewell to Bob Dylan's past" (from the liner notes).

Happy Birthday!

Support Woody's legacy at the Woody Guthrie Foundation and buy some of his music at Smithsonian Folkways. The woodcut photo was "borrowed" from the Acorn Studio & Gallery. Thanks!

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

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