Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Woody Guthrie

  • Dust Bowl Ballads [Rounder, 1988]  
  • Struggle [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1990] A-
  • Early Masters [Tradition, 1996] A-
  • This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997] A
  • Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings Vol. 2 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997] **
  • Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings, Vol. 3 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1998] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Dust Bowl Ballads [Rounder, 1988]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Struggle [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1990]
Protest music with a vengeance--originally conceived as a six-song project by Guthrie in 1946, expanded by Moses Asch to mark the Bicentennial, and now reissued by the federal government for the good-politics people at Rounder. The title may be a progressive shibboleth, but there's nothing especially uplifting about these tales of class warfare, most of which detail grisly defeats. Guthrie's heroes are smothered or incinerated in mine disasters, massacred by company thugs, hunted down by bloodhounds, left to rot from nonslip hangknots. A few times they get to kill back, but if they're really lucky they're buried in union coffins--"Every new grave brings a thousand members." In short, morbid shit, its tradition the Appalachian ballad and Emily Dickinson rather than the deracinated spirituals and pink-cheeked camp songs of good clean American leftism. Can thrash covers be far behind? A-

Early Masters [Tradition, 1996]
The godfather as seminal folkie on a "sonically cleansed" reissue of a 1961 compilation of a dozen mid-'40s recordings, nine or so famed for good reason. Though the credits state otherwise and the notes are sketchy, he wrote maybe half these songs, but the familiar support of Cisco Houston's harmonies and the occasional relief of Sonny Terry's harmonica compensate handily for his interpretive shortcomings. In short, a fine how-de-doo. A-

This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997]
The godfather as protean wordslinger on a digitally-remastered-from-original-acetates recanonization, 27 tracks (including three songs on Early Masters) that honor his verbal genius. With his sidekick chiming in only occasionally, Woody's flat vocal affect diminishes the apparent variety of simple tunes a more inspired singer might have made seem classic; it's only after you learn to identify the voice with the lyrics that it does seem classic, and even then it wears considerable over 72 minutes. The songs, however, do not. Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon have conceived an introduction perfect enough to accommodate obscurities and surprises, as it should with a man who could lay down 55 titles in a day. So there are half a dozen public-domain touchstones for context and melodic range, two wild talking blues unreleased since 1964, two children's songs I now consider among his best of any sort, a Lindbergh dis so scathing I want to research the America First movement and find out who "Wheeler, Clark, and Nye" were, a Lincoln Brigade anthem so maudlin I hope Franco was as bad as I thought. Three additional volumes are planned. But this keeper comes first for a reason. A

Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings Vol. 2 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997]
Knew a good tune when he stole it, no great shakes at singing them ("Muleskinner Blues," "Rubber Dolly"). **

Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings, Vol. 3 [Smithsonian/Folkways, 1998]
For the words, which suffice. Conjugating "Howdjadoo," naming fish he's read about and bugs he knows personally, describing women's hats from memory, creating a "Hanukkah Dance" for the daughter he calls "my little latke" (pronounced lot-key), his vocation was transmuting the folksy into Americanese. If he also wrote more songs than necessary with the word "union" in them, his heart was in the right place. Propaganda may be awkward, ineffective, annoying. But that don't make it wrong. A-

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