Saturday, June 20, 2009

June 20: Woody Guthrie, "Dust Bowl Ballads"

Artist: Woody Guthrie
Album: Dust Bowl Ballads
Year: 1940
Label: RCA Victor

Some people say The Ramones were the first punks, others argue that punk began with The Velvet Underground. The truth of the matter is, the spirit of punk rock has been alive and well since the late 1930's in the voice and writing of the one and only Woody Guthrie. Few artists can claim as wide ranging and long standing impact as can be credited to Guthrie, with legends like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen citing him as the inspiration behind their music. His songs are only his guitar and voice, yet the lyrics and spirit behind the music represent some of the earliest "political" songs to be recorded. With a large number of scattered recordings, it is often difficult to figure out just "where" to start with the catalog of Woody Guthrie. Yet, like with many artists, the best place to start is at the beginning, in this case, his first batch of recordings that comprise the 1940 release, Dust Bowl Ballads.

All of the songs that appear on Dust Bowl Ballads were recorded on April 26 and May 3 of 1940, and the recordings would prove to be Guthrie's greatest commercial success. Though it has seen a number of incarnations over the decades, Dust Bowl Ballads was originally released as a pair of three-disc 78's in the July of 1940 and were called Dust Bowl Ballads Volume I & II. Due to it's length (nearly seven minutes), "Tom Joad" covered two sides of one of the albums. The original release omits "Pretty Boy Floyd and "Dust Bowl Blues" due to their length. During the folk revival of the early 1960's, all of the songs form the sessions were collected and released on a single LP in 1964. Both Rounder Records and Buddha Records released albums of the same title, with the same songs, but in different orders. Finally, in 2000, Dust Bowl Ballads was released yet another time, with this version including an alternate take of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." Regardless of which version you pick up, the quality of the recordings is consistently solid on each release.

Musically, it truly gets no more simple than the sound of Woody Guthrie and his guitar. A mixture of blues and country, in many ways, Dust Bowl Ballads marks the birth of folk music in its modern form. The music is rarely anything beyond chords, and it's primary purpose is to simply provide a background over which the lyrics and be sung. This is not to say the music is of poor quality or boring, each song has it's own identity, and the influence it had on later artists is quite clear. Artists from Springsteen to Rage Against The Machine have taken parts or entire songs from Dust Bowl Ballads and made them their own, including Rage's hard hitting take on "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." It is within the music (and guitar) where one can find the previously mentioned birthing of the punk spirit. Most famously, on Gurthrie's guitar were written the words "This Machine Kills Fascists." While in our modern day, this may seem like no big deal, for anything, especially such a pointed statement to be present on the guitar was nothing short of revolutionary. Guthrie also presents a very different perspective on the infamous back robber, Pretty Boy Floyd, making him out to be more of a misunderstood Robin Hood, as opposed to an outlaw. There is also the mocking of economic status in the song, "Do Re Mi." The title, which is perhaps more clear as "Dough Re Mi," attacks the state of California and conveys the idea that, if you aren't wealthy, you aren't welcome in the state.

Woody Guthrie's voice is as "pure American" as one will find anywhere in history. Honest and simple, the Oklahoma born Guthrie sings strong and clear, with a bit of country "twang" in his voice. The honesty of the recordings takes on a whole new life when one hears Guthrie chuckle a few times, and it is then that one realizes that these recordings were all done in a single take, and the small nuances make them all the more enjoyable. Lyrically, there is still debate as to the inspiration behind the songs found on Dust Bowl Ballads. Many claim that the album is, in fact, a concept album revolving around John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes Of Wrath. With one of the most prominent songs being "Tom Joad" and many of the other songs seeming to have strong connections to the story, it is quite hard to argue this point. However, the songs also happen to have a very similar connection to the life and travels of Guthrie himself. Woody himself experienced the socio-economic issues of migrant workers while he was in California, and having grown up in Oklahoma, many of the other songs can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Regardless of the "true" meaning behind the songs, they are all phenomenal, and they set the stage for his later, more politically charged songs, inspiring the "working man" to rise up and stand up for their rights.

With his classic voice and old acoustic guitar, Woody Guthrie was the beginning of the establishment questioning spirit of punk rock music. Serving as the archetype for folk musicians to follow, it is almost impossible to find an artist who has had an overall influence on music that is even remotely comparable to that of Guthrie. From criticizing economic castes to stories of storms and traveling, Dust Bowl Ballads is a perfect representation of the term "Americana." Guthrie's voice is as honest and simple as they get, and his unestablished sound continues to inspire musicians across the world to this day. Though there have been countless compilations and re-releases of his recordings, it is his first batch of recordings where one finds his finest, most beautiful work. Due it it being such an significant moment in music history that it has been re-released a number of times since it's recording nearly seventy years ago, Woody Guthrie's 1940 release, Dust Bowl Ballads, is undoubtedly one of the most important and amazing albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Do Re Mi," and "I Ain't Got No Home."

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Inspired choice, Guru. I agree - I think this album is amazing and one of the most influential to thousands of songwriters everywhere. :)

Great review! Didn't realize the album was recorded in 2 days...interesting. "Do Re Mi" is a fave of mine as well.