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.

House of the Rising Sun

We headed into the studio with ten songs to record for our next album, “The Ghost of John Henry,” but at the last minute, I decided to add an 11th to the schedule (we had to go up to 11, after all…).  In a lot of ways, recording that last song —  “House of the Rising Sun” — was the most terrifying part of this entire process for me.  Here are some people who have also recorded versions of this song: Nina Simone. The Animals. Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez.

So you can see why I was a little nervous about tackling this monster.  What on earth could I add to what had already been done with it?  Well, now we know the answer, one way or the other:

You can download our version of “House of the Rising Sun” for free, here:

It’s an old, old song, and Wikipedia will be happy to tell you all about it.  But as much as I simply enjoy the song — musically, thematically, what-have-you — there is a lot of personal weight behind it.  My dad played in bands from the time he was a kid, and when I came along, the first song I remember him playing for me on guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Consequently, those arpeggios (or maybe “Louie, Louie”) were probably the first thing I ever tried to play on guitar, although my hands were too small and that effort went nowhere, landing me behind a drum kit, instead.  When my kids came along and I sang them to sleep every night, one of the songs I sang them was “House of the Rising Sun.” (I did sing them some less depressing ones, too, in case you’re worried.)  I began incorporating “House” into some of my solo acoustic shows, and then we began playing it together as a band.  It seemed like something we should try to get down since we were in the studio, anyway, and it had a little extra meaning because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my dad came in from Texas to play bass on the sessions.

I had the conscious thought regarding this song more than any other in this process, “I must get this right.”  If it wasn’t right, if it didn’t bring another voice or perspective or sonic experience to the table, then it would just be some band doing a forgettable cover song.  I hope this isn’t that.  And I like to think that it isn’t simply arrogance to believe it isn’t.  I’m not aware of another version quite as dark, quite as …eerie?…haunting? as ours.  Jody’s cello part brings a texture and a sadness that really linger for me.  And I hope I always remember sitting in the control room listening back to the drum tracks for the first time, and everybody’s jaws just dropping when Kurt played that monster fill that powers the song into its finale.

The video I made to go along with the recording is much more evocative than literal, and for the photos that make it up I drew on the wonderful resource that is the American Memory Project.  The photo effort that produced the images I used in the video was the same effort that produced the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo Dorothea Lange took in a work camp full of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl.  Dorothea Lange shot several of the photos used in this video, most notably the photos of the two men walking down the road, past a billboard inviting them to take the train next time and “relax.”  The last photo of the video was actually taken in the Autumn of 1910, and is the oldest one I used.

The American Memory collection online is an utterly stunning collection of photos, documents, and recordings dating back to the 1400s. I cannot recommend enough spending some time with it.