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: Beautiful Maladies (Tom Waits)

Album: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
Artist: Tom Waits
Genre: Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Claptrap
Year: 1998

In honor of Tom Waits’ new album Bad as Me, which comes out today, I thought it’d be a good time to look back at an earlier phase of his career.

In the last few years, Tom Waits has somehow emerged as a revered national treasure.  I say “somehow” not because this is undeserved (It is. It definitely is.), but because he’s still doing the same thing he’s been doing since about 1988, in the same way, but suddenly his prominence in pop culture and the general public awareness has exploded.  So you have heard of Tom Waits, but if you haven’t ever listened to him, a back catalog reaching back over the last thirty years makes the proper point of entry a little hazy.  If one wanted to explore Tom Waits, where would one start?  You could grab Bad as Me, which is wonderful, or…

…with Beautiful Maladies.

It’s a compilation album, encompassing the work Waits did for Island Records during the ten years from 1983-1993, and usually compilation albums suck.  This one was compiled by the man himself, however, and it attains what compilation albums (and even live albums, mostly) never do, which is coherence and a sense of narrative.  In fact, the sequencing of this album is decidedly similar to his Mule Variations from 1999.  Both albums start with a kick (“Hang on St. Christopher,” “Big in Japan”) that sets the table for what is to follow — strange instrumentation, a unique spiritual landscape somewhere between Dust Bowl America and Brothers Grimm Germany, and Tom Waits’ distinctive vocals and phrasing — before drifting into meditative, slower numbers (“Clap Hands,” “Hold On”), spoken word pieces (“Frank’s Wild Years,” “What’s He Building in There?”), nighttime meanderings through Waits’ world of invented characters fresh from burlesque shows, circuses, and boxcars (“Shore Leave,” “Eyeball Kid”), and deeply moving, closely observed examinations of real life crashing in on people in lonely, heartbreaking ways (“Strange Weather,” “November,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and “Pony,” “Georgia Lee,” “Take it With Me”).  So not only is Beautiful Maladies a compelling album, at the end of the day, it’s a compelling Tom Waits album, that feels as organic and unified as anything else he’s done.
Waits has a reputation for his gravelly voice, and it is well earned, but people often overlook his range and diversity of vocal presentation.  On albums like Blood Money, Waits’ voice sounds like it’s on its last legs and it can be hard to listen to at times. It wasn’t until I heard subsequent albums that I realized his voice doesn’t have to sound like that. On Beautiful Maladies, there are Blood Money moments, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but there are also moments when Waits could be characterized as even crooning (“Innocent When You Dream,” and a personal favorite, “Time”).  By creating this cross-section of a representative period of his career, he has forged a compelling primer for the many voices of Tom Waits, and it lowers the barriers to entry for people to whom his voice might sound jarring at first.  Like anything, though, the edges become smoother with repeated listens, and ultimately, this man’s enduring songcraft, his totally unique perspective on the human condition, and his alluring sense of gallows humor are the characteristics that have allowed him to capture so many people’s imaginations.  All of them are on display in Beautiful Maladies.
Find more Tom Waits albums at Myspace Music
Finally, if you have never heard Waits’ original version of “Downtown Train,” and are only familiar with Rod Stewart’s schlocky cover version, you really, really, really owe it to yourself to hear the original.