As habitual readers of this space are already aware, I’m celebrating Woody Guthrie’s centennial by helping put together a tribute album dedicated to raising funds for the Woody Guthrie Foundation, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I’m a fan, and my review of Smithsonian Folkways’ anniversary box, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, is pretty much a formality.
So I’ll keep this somewhat brief. But it bears repeating, again, that Guthrie is one of our country’s most valuable musical treasures, and even if he’s been frozen in Dust Bowl sepia in our national memory, his songs are thoroughly, brilliantly alive — from populist screeds to humorous ditties, his words and music haven’t lost an ounce of their essential truth.
They also sound pretty great, thanks to the outstanding work performed by the small army of engineers listed in the credits (including renowned mastering ninja Joe Gastwirt); you’ll hear a fair amount of the fidelity issues you’d expect from source recordings this old, but just as often, Guthrie sounds like he could be sitting next to you. Which is pretty amazing — and also exactly what we’ve been trained to expect from an archival release in 2012.
Guthrie has been compiled and repackaged on multiple occasions, of course, and Woody at 100 isn’t the most comprehensive in terms of song selection — that honor goes to the sprawling Asch Recordings series, which outweighs this box by about 40 tracks — but it’s certainly the most handsome, with three discs and a 148-page booklet bound in a hefty hardcover package. It boasts lengthy biographical essays, dozens of Guthrie drawings, reproductions of his handwritten lyrics, suggestions for further reading, and so much more. It’s flawlessly absorbing.
As for who it’s being targeted to, I really couldn’t say. I mean, it certainly hits my sweet spot, because while I have the Asch sets, I’ve never read a Guthrie biography and I’m happy with the way Woody at 100 blends established favorites like “This Land Is Your Land” with rare and unreleased performances (including six never-before-heard songs, which is mind-boggling at this late date); I’m equally entranced with the producers’ decision to dedicate the third disc to live recordings. But I have to wonder if the smattering of new material (and, to be fair, the restoration work) will make it worth it for Guthrie diehards to buy stuff they probably already have — and I also wonder if newcomers will be willing to pay a premium for this Guthrie gateway, even if it is beautifully assembled.
Still, marketing considerations aside, there’s no denying the folks behind this package did their jobs and then some — and there’s also no denying that Smithsonian Folkways has set a fair price point for Woody at 100, which is currently going for less than $65 at Amazon (and if you think you only want the mp3s, which you don’t, it’s only $24.99). As a centennial celebration, it’s suitably impressive; as a listening experience, it’s thoroughly satisfying. You could hardly ask for more.