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.

Great Album Reviews: Unearthed (Johnny Cash)

Album: Unearthed
Artist: Johnny Cash
Genre: Country, Alt-Country, Acoustic
Year: 2003


Johnny Cash told it like it was and didn’t mess around, so I’ll get to the point: the 5-disc Unearthed boxed set is an epic statement that in many ways sums up Johnny Cash.  If you don’t have it, and you know who Johnny Cash was, you should probably go buy it. These days, it’s only available as a download, but that’s cool.

Without this collection, I wouldn’t be playing the music I’m playing now. I got it, and felt I immediately had to learn about half the songs on the first and third discs. Focusing like that on learning guitar music changed me from a drummer who knew a few chords and maybe wrote a song every couple of years, and into a guitarist who writes songs.

I don’t think we realized when listening to the American albums produced by Rick Rubin after Columbia Records dropped Cash that what we were hearing was just a sliver of light visible through a half-opened door. Unearthed was what lay in the room beyond.

As country music changed, Columbia pushed Cash toward a bigger sound, with string arrangements and horn sections, and a production style that Rick Rubin then came along and stripped away. Johnny Cash was a storyteller with what’s been called the voice of a Biblical prophet, and anything that got in the way of that voice telling the stories it wanted to tell, had to go. This gave rise to American Recordings, Unchained, Solitary Man, and The Man Comes Around. Not included on those albums were the songs that would make up the four essential discs of Unearthed. The songs on Disc 5 were culled from the official albums.

Each disc is itself a masterpiece, and of disc 4, My Mother’s Hymn Book (later released as a stand-alone album), Cash himself said, “You asked me to pick my favorite album I’ve ever made and this is it, My Mother’s Hymn Book. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was to it. I’m so glad that I got that done.”

I could write about the Kristofferson songs he covers, or the new takes on old songs that were originally over-produced, or the duets, but what else do you need beyond that quote?

So thanks, Johnny. And thanks Rick Rubin for the vision that made this collection, and all of the American releases a reality.