BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"The Asch Recordings, Vols. 1-4"
Like Little Richard was to rock 'n' roll, or Louis
Armstrong was to jazz, Woody Guthrie is to American folk
music — the clearest, deepest source. Humble, frank and
amazingly prolific, Guthrie churned out more music in a
17-year period than some whole subgenres of pop, and the
imprint of these tunes and these lyrics is still being
felt. Smithsonian Folkways continues to enshrine America's
roots music in valuable boxed sets and CD releases, and the
label reaches its apex with this four-CD collection that,
as a whole, sums up Guthrie's entire vibrant statement to
Such a summation is no easy task, but Moses Asch was
destined for it. The idealistic, workaholic record company
owner could usually be found in his small office/studio at
all hours of the day or night, and he had enormous respect
for truly creative artists — whether or not they were
commercially viable. In his lifetime, Asch was responsible
for recording and releasing the songs of more than 2,000
artists, including Guthrie cohorts Leadbelly and Pete
Seeger, as well as singers like Josh White and Burl Ives.
In the spring of 1944, Asch met Guthrie — an Okie who'd
been wandering the country much of his young adulthood — and
was taken by his political convictions and creative spirit.
For the next six years, Asch recorded Woody singing his
songs and those of other songwriters. The sessions that
survive comprise the bulk of Woody's recorded legacy, and
this digitally remastered set may be the definitive Woody
collection. "Oh yes, it's definitely definitive," said
Guy Logsdon, a Tulsa resident and probably the pre-eminent
Guthrie scholar. With sound archivist Jeff Place, Logsdon
compiled and annotated these four discs, which were
released separately in the last few years and are just now
collected in one boxed set.
"I read in a music catalog a while back, someone wrote
about this that 'anyone interested in American music must
have this collection,'" Logsdon said. "That's because Woody
was such an influence — not just on folk but on rock 'n'
roll, pop music, all the way down the line. He gave us
children's songs that people sing and don't even know Woody
wrote them. This is the collection."
Asch became the source of Guthrie recordings because of
his lengthy relationship with him. Guthrie's Library of
Congress recordings were made during a two week period in
1940. After that, he put down the "Dust Bowl Ballads" for
RCA, plus a few records for small labels. He took a hiatus
from recording while he was in the Merchant Marines, and
then began his most productive period with Asch.
Those six years are expertly compiled on this set, each
disc with its own theme. Volume 1, "This Land Is Your Land,"
presents many of Guthrie's best-known and best-loved songs,
from the child-like fun of "Car Song" and "Talking Fishing
Blues" to serious issues tackled in "Do-Re-Mi" and "Jesus
Christ." Volume 2, "Muleskinner Blues," is a selection of the
more traditional folk repertory Guthrie had learned and
adopted as his own throughout his life, from "Stackolee" to
the "Worried Man Blues." Volume 3, "Hard Travelin'," culls
together the best of Guthrie's current-events songs,
swinging between the World War II version of "So Long, It's
Been Good to Know You" and amusing cultural trendspotting
Volume 4, "Buffalo Skinners," looks at a side of Guthrie
many might not have seen before. While compiling a complete
discography of Guthrie's songs during a 1990 post-doctoral
fellowship, Logsdon explored Woody's unheralded cowboy
In Logsdon's extensive liner notes for this set, he
traces the development of Guthrie as a cowboy songwriter,
starting with "Oklahoma Hills." The eventual recording of
that song became a country-and-western hit in 1945, sung by
Woody's cousin, Jack Guthrie. The success of that song
inspired him to write more, and he enjoyed another hit in
1949 when the Maddox Brothers recorded "Philadelphia Lawyer."
"Most people don't associate Woody with cowboy songs,"
Logsdon said. "Woody's father came to the Creek Nation as a
cowboy, though. He worked on a ranch east of Okmulgee. He
and his granddad were ranchers in Texas. In Michael Wallis'
book about the 101 Ranch, he refers to Gid Guthrie, Woody's
great uncle. So this fourth volume may come as a bit of a
surprise to some folks."
Guthrie's body of work is full of surprises. Those of us
who grew up singing "This Land Is Your Land" in grade school
and hearing about Woody the serious, hard travelin' folk
singer are always taken aback by the depths to which his
convictions plumbed, as well as his underappreciated
playful side. Both are on parade throughout "The Asch
Recordings." Guthrie even wrote songs to accompany Omar
Khayyam's ancient "Rubaiyat" poem. Only a few copies of the
recordings exist, and Logsdon said no one's sure yet how to
sequence them. One of these tracks is featured on Volume 3,
and it's a textbook example of Guthrie taking time-worn
philosophies and trying to apply them to the events of his
This set is, indeed, a must-have for anyone with even a
passing interest in American music or American history. No
other artist in the mid-20th century put down the issues,
the angst and the joy more accurately and frankly than
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.