Great Album Reviews: Folkways – The Original Vision

Album: Folkways: The Original Vision
Artist: Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly
Genre: Folk
Year: 2005

When Moses Asch died, he left behind an astounding legacy of over 2,000 albums in the catalog of his Folkways Records label. For over 40 years, Asch had been releasing folk music from around the world, and his recordings of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly helped shape the folk revival that took root in early-60s NYC. Upon Asch’s death, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label and its holdings, issuing Folkways: The Original Vision as the inaugural release on the new Smithsonian Folkways label.

2012 is Woody Guthrie’s centennial year, and there are celebrations and concerts planned all throughout the year. I was very fortunate to be able to take my little boy to the Woody Guthrie tribute concert here in LA on April 14, and I am proud to say I now have a 5-year-old with a crush on Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody’s granddaughter) and who runs through the house singing Woody’s Union Maid.  I’m pretty sure I was the only one who brought my kid, and to be honest, that’s kinda too bad. 
It is not possible to overstate the importance of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly to American music.  And if you haven’t listened to them, or aren’t currently, please, treat yourself to this album.
It’s always daunting to try to leap into the body of work of some legendary figure in music or literature. How do you know where to start? I guess it’s different now with iTunes and playlists and everything, but I remember distinctly standing there like a goon one day in college trying to figure out which of three Willie Nelson compilation albums I should buy (for the record, I probably should’ve just bought Stardust, but you live and learn). You could go the same route with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, churning through the countless “Best Of” or “Best Loved Songs” collections out there, or you could jump in whole-hog and buy the 4-disc set of Woody’s Asch Recordings. But in this case, take my word for it: start here.
In my earlier review of Tom Waits’ Beautiful Maladies, I mentioned that album was curated by Waits himself, which is important, because it’s usually the quality of the curating that makes a compilation album worth a damn or not. The problem with those Willie Nelson 10 Best Songs or 16 Biggest Hits or what-have-you is that you know nobody who knows what they’re talking about is actually picking that track list. In the case of Folkways: The Original Vision, it’s hard to imagine someone doing a better job.
In the case of Woody Guthrie, you have a cross-section featuring his social conscience (Jesus Christ, Vigilante Man), his wit and humor (Do Re MiTalking Hard Work, Car Song), and his stunning slice-of-life storytelling (my personal favorite, I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore). And above all, you come away with the razor-sharp knowledge that Woody told a truth that was right in 1944, it’s right today, and it’ll be right in another hundred years. He provided a soundtrack as fitting for the Great Depression as the Great Recession three generations later. Listen to Jesus Christ and tell me it doesn’t still hit home. That’s why I wanted my son to know about Woody Guthrie. 
Lead Belly was about 20 years older than Woody and taught him a lot.  But Lead Belly’s songs (with the notable exception of Bourgeois Blues, which he wrote after being denied a hotel room in Washington D.C. because he was black), are less evocative of outright social struggle than they are of American folk life.  My parents picked cotton, and I remember walking cotton fields as a kid, so Lead Belly’s songs like Cotton Fields and Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie are particularly evocative for me coming from the Gulf Coast, like he did. This collection has those songs, as well as In the Pines (later made ultra-famous by Kurt Cobain as Where Did You Sleep Last Night?), and Goodnight, Irene, which me and Tom Waits and Willie Nelson and a million other folks have played. 
Also worth noting is that you can download the wonderful liner notes for Folkways: The Original Vision from the Smithsonian Folkways site here.

Road Stories: The Show for Nobody

As I’ve said extensively elsewhere, I used to play in a metal band called Black Spiral. When we first started playing together, we were about 16, in high school, and just doing covers of Metallica songs and such. Our first gig ever was at a Catholic church Spring fair, where we played two nights (my only holdover to date) of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Back in Black” and “Cowboys from Hell” (yep) on a flatbed trailer. Years later, I was walking around our little suburb of Houston wearing a Black Spiral T-shirt, and a girl stopped me and said “Hey, I think I saw that band play at a church carnival one time. Did they ever get good?” To which I could only say, “Yes. They got awesome.” But that’s neither here nor there.

After we got awesome and wrote a bunch of our own music, we played fairly extensively in Houston for maybe 18 months or so. The high-water mark came when we opened for Acid Bath at The Abyss, my favorite ever (and now defunct, occupied by a home audio store) Houston music venue. The low point was most probably the night we got to play for nobody. And I mean frickin’ nobody.
Fitzgerald’s is a venue in Houston of decidedly mixed repute. They have hosted amazing shows, but the building has also gone through periods of utter disrepair.  They’ve got a big stage, which we always enjoyed, and a smaller stage downstairs, which I never particularly did. I was able to once play that stage like a bass drum, though, when my kit fell apart mid-song. Different story.
So we’d been playing at Fitzgerald’s off and on, and showed up for one of our gigs, playing with another band we’d played with before called Temper Scarlet. We liked them, because they usually drew a decent crowd, and after we walked off stage the first time they heard us, they called us “the heaviest thing they’d ever heard on six legs.” You take praise where you can get it.

At that time and place, all the bands got to the venue at the same time — ridiculously early, like 6 or 7 pm — to load in, and the show would start around 9:00. We were the first band to show up, and our guitarist, Ryan Dawe, who is from Canada and therefore plays hockey, had just had his toe stepped on by an ice skate. He gleefully watched as our bassist/vocalist Christopher Crowson and I did all of the loading in. Somebody was supposed to play before us, but they didn’t show up at a certain point, so the sound guy told us to go ahead and set up onstage. At the time, we were really taken with Sepurtura’s cover of Motorhead’s “Orgasmatron,” and knew how to play it, but not the words. So we went outside and got on a cell phone the size of a walrus, and called a friend who had the track on a bootleg CD. (I’m old) He listened to the song, and told us the words over the phone, which Chris scratched out on a sheet of paper. The Internet at this time was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, so this is how people did things back then.

This took a while, and when we went back inside, there were no fans, and none of the other bands showed up. But the sound guy told us to go on, so we got up and started playing. For the sound guy.

And that’s it. We played our set. Then we played “Orgasmatron,” with Chris propping the lyric sheet up on a floor monitor. But the bass rumble through the monitor kept knocking the lyrics off, so finally Chris stopped playing bass, and just held up the words, yelling them into the mic. What did it matter? Nobody was there. Nobody showed up. The other bands didn’t even show up, for God’s sake.

I am of the firm belief that if somebody offers you a stage, you take it, and you hold it for as long as you can. After we played pretty much everything we knew, nobody was going to run us off, and we’d seen a piano in the dressing room, so we went and grabbed it. Again, Dawe watched gleefully as Chris and I lugged this good-and-damn-heavy piano onstage. Dawe played piano pretty well, and had written a bunch of solo piano compositions. I don’t think I’d ever heard but maybe one of them. So he played those, and Chris and I improvised bass and drum parts for them. For nobody.

There is video of this somewhere, shot on grainy VHS, but I loaned it to Dawe when we were getting ready to record an EP of his piano material a couple of years later. And I have never again seen that tape. I’m looking at you, Dawe…

Incidentally, here’s Ryan’s EP, which is wonderful. I excavated and remastered it for the world to enjoy, so please do so. And also, come to the next Sci-Fi Romance show (CD release show — May 11, Pig ‘n Whistle, Hollywood), so I don’t have to play for nobody but the sound guy ever, ever again. That sucks.