Woody Guthrie is widely considered – and rightfully so – as the Grand Daddy of Americana music. Guthrie’s career was incredibly short, considering his accomplishments, spanning from the early ‘30s until the late ‘50s, when Huntington’s disease rendered him unable to perform until his too-young death in 1967 at the age of 55 years. Still, Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs during his relatively brief career: political songs, children’s songs, ballads, and folk songs, many of which have since become standards of the genre. Informed by his own Dust Bowl upbringing and westward migration during the ‘30s, Guthrie’s songs championed the working man, his left-leaning (and frequently political) lyrics biting the hand of company bosses and craven politicians with caustic wit and acidic poetry. Guthrie’s songs were extremely influential, and have been recorded by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, and the Grateful Dead, to name a few.
Guthrie’s influence can best be heard in Dylan’s lyrics, Woody teaching the young guitar player from Minnesota that songs could be poetically profound, and you can hear Woody’s influence echo in the music of such disparate artists as the Clash, Rage Against the Machine, and Ani DiFranco, among many others. Before his death, friends and family had begun organizing a tribute concert in the artist’s honor, with proceeds to be donated to the newly-created Woody Guthrie Foundation (established by his widow Marjorie, the mother of musician Arlo Guthrie) to create an archive for the singer/songwriter, and to support research into Huntington’s disease, an effort that continues to this day. Bear Family Records has a reputation for quality reissues, and they’ve certainly outdone themselves with this deluxe repackaging of the previously-released (albeit long forgotten) performances, which have been released on both vinyl and CD, but never like this...
Woody Guthrie – The Tribute Concerts
Woody Guthrie – The Tribute Concerts is a three-CD box set comprised of both performances that were given in honor of the singer/songwriter. The first disc documents a January 1968 show from Carnegie Hall in New York City while the other two discs feature a sequel, of sorts, as a second Guthrie tribute concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970. The Carnegie Hall show sounds like a wonderful affair, a veritable “who’s who” of ‘60s-era folk musicians performing including Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, the legendary Odetta, and Richie Havens (still a year and a half away from his Woodstock moment) as well as Guthrie acolyte Bob Dylan and his son Arlo. The performers were backed by the musicians who would become known as the Band, who had been playing behind Dylan circa 1966-67 and would release their debut album, Music From Big Pink, later that year.
Actors Robert Ryan and Will Geer (i.e. ‘Grandpa Walton’) – both friends of Woody and well-known Hollywood social activists – provide narration in between songs, offering a brief history of the Dustbowl Bard. A truncated version of Guthrie’s “This Train Is Bound For Glory” leads off the show, with the entire cast pitching in behind Seeger’s reedy vocals and Arlo’s wailing harmonica, before a bit of narration kicks in. Arlo tackles “Oklahoma Hills,” acquitting himself nicely, while Judy Collins does a bang-up job with “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.” A vintage recording of Woody singing “Riding In My Car” is a rough-hewn, joyful thing displaying both the songwriter’s sense of humor but also his innate ability to create a melody with even the silliest of lyrics. Folk legend Odetta offers a mesmerizing read of “Ramblin’ Round,” with just her voice guitar weaving a spell that leaves the audience enchanted.
Tom Paxton brings his usual zeal to Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” an engaging story-song with real life inspiration, while Richie Havens delivers a haunting original, “Blues For Woody,” his sonorous voice and sparse fretwork capturing the audience’s attention. Havens’ version of Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” is equally fraught with emotion, the singer’s otherworldly vocals perfectly capturing the song’s dark vibe. Reappearing on stage after a two-year hiatus from performing, Bob Dylan grabs the spotlight for three songs, his raw, unpolished take of “Grand Coulee Dam” barely staying on the rails; his rowdy reading of “I Ain’t Got No Home” is bluesier and more self-assured. Led by Odetta and Arlo, the entire cast closes out the show with “This Land Is Your Land,” as uplifting a performance of the classic song as you’ll ever hear, complimented by Geer’s fierce between-verses narration.