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Riveting naïveté

Music | Box set explores the music of leftist folk singer Woody Guthrie

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

American Radical Patriot (Rounder) is a six-CD, one-DVD, one-78-RPM record, and one-256-page-biography box set that sheds essential light on America’s most important folk singer, Woody Guthrie.

Discs One through Four present interviews and illustrative song performances that Guthrie granted the folklorists Alan and Elizabeth Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1940, mainly on the subject of Dust Bowl refugees. Guthrie, a riveting storyteller at 27, sounds 50 at least.

Disc Five presents songs Guthrie recorded in 1941 in support of the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. involvement in World War II. (He joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 and served in the Army shortly before the war ended.)

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Disc Six’s highlight is a Guthrie-narrated radio drama called “The Lonesome Traveler” that, along with 10 demos referred to as “V.D. songs,” warns of the evils of syphilis. (The 78-RPM vinyl presents the 20-year-old Bob Dylan singing a Guthrie V.D. song as well.) Compared to attitudes prevalent in 2013, Guthrie’s frankly cautionary tone sounds almost moralistic, even naïve.

Naïveté, in fact, is what emerges as Guthrie’s defining characteristic. While never a Communist, Guthrie was Communist-friendly enough to provide the enemy succor. While the Common Man he championed was often indistinguishable from a Rugged Individualist, he also believed Big Government capable of more good than harm, and he provided that enemy succor too.

Yet it’s not “naïve” but another “N-word” that would be American Radical Patriot’s big revelation were Guthrie not a leftist icon.

“Until he was called on it,” writes Bill Nowlin in the box set’s book, “he used the word ‘nigger’ when referring to a well-known fiddle tune of the day—but once a radio listener wrote in and explained how hurtful that word was, from that time in 1937 on, he never used it again. …”

Fair enough. 

Rock critics panicked in the early 1990s when rumors circulated that a tape would soon surface in which the King of Rock and Roll would be heard committing the same sin. Elvis would have to be dethroned. But the tape never surfaced, and Elvis survived.

Guthrie may too—he utters nothing verboten on American Radical Patriot. But he does say “Negro,” and for some that will be blacklist worthy enough. The worst Elvis has ever been proved to have said is “colored guys.”

Radical sparks

An equally captivating folk-box-with-book is Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 (Tompkins Square). The titular dates are misleading: Folkies began performing at the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., haunt in 1960. But so far anthologists have not unearthed tapes dating back that far, hence the three-disc set’s 1967 starting point.

Fellow-traveler politics surely played—and play—a role in the Caffè Lena story, but they’re given short shrift in the box set’s three CDs and the 31-page libretto. The all-acoustic music gets the spotlight. And, uneven though the 47 performances are (in terms of both audio and aesthetic quality), sparks do fly.

Recommended: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott doing Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and Aztec Two Step doing “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty,” which are every bit as compelling as they are historically revisionist and wrongheaded. —A.O.


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