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Folk Ways

By B.A. Nilsson

Woody Guthrie

My Dusty Road (Rounder)

Every now and then, something turns up unexpectedly. Caravaggio’s The Taking of the Christ was unearthed, but I still await a complete print of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Meanwhile, a stash of Woody Guthrie recordings was discovered in a Brooklyn storage bin, part of the inventory of Stinson-label records that fell into limbo following a tangled series of bankruptcies and family disputes.

It’s too fascinating a story to recount here, and Ed Cray and Bill Nowlin have a detailed essay in the booklet accompanying the four-CD set, My Dusty Road, that reissues 54 of these very significant recordings.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of the Guthrie legacy is that his recordings were produced fast and cheap, and many of them, drawn from dubs of dubs, sound like crap. Some of the songs from these sessions went to original co-producer Moe Asch’s Folkways label, which had a way of making everything sound terrible, and are now available through the Smithsonian-Folkways label. More on that in a moment.

Here, on the other hand, is a set taken directly from metal masters that sat virtually unmolested since they were recorded in April 1944. The sound isn’t audiophile-quality clean, but restoration engineer Doug Pomeroy (responsible for sparkling projects for Mosaic Records and for Bluebird’s “Secret History of Rock and Roll” series) has brought out a tonal depth, including an impressive range of high-frequency material, that you wouldn’t associate with Woody’s recordings.

Guthrie was a Merchant Marine on shore leave during the week in April 1944 when he laid down an astonishing 250 tracks, many of them with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. Over 60 of those sides got the quality-rerelease treatment in a 1999 Smithsonian-Folkways four-CD set that also included a number of other Guthrie recordings from the period. The songs sound far better than any of the earlier Folkways LPs, but still bear the scars of overplayed masters.

Those April 1944 sessions present Woody at the peak of his writing and performing career. Despite the speed with which these recordings were made, they are the accomplished work of a seasoned artist. So the new Rounder set becomes a very important component of the Guthrie canon, not only illustrating his artistry but also freezing a moment in time when these songs, many of them still familiar, were still evolving.

Disc One lives up to its moniker of “Woody’s Greatest Hits,” with versions of “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” two takes of “Going Down the Road” and the previously unreleased “Bad Repetation” [sic] among the offerings. The “Woody’s Roots” disc includes traditional songs like “Stackolee,” “Chisholm Trail,” “John Henry” and Guthrie’s reworkings of “Stewball,” “Buffalo Skinners” and more.

Some of the songs on Disc Three, “Woody the Agitator,” were inspired by the then-current war (“Tear the Fascists Down,” “When the Yanks Go Marching In”) but they’re mixed with classic union songs and a two-part tribute to Harriet Tubman. The final CD presents 15 recordings in which Guthrie is joined by Houston and Terry, including three previously unreleased sides (“Guitar Rag,” “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Sonny’s Flight.”)

It’s an intense listening experience, especially when you augment it with a careful reading of the detailed program notes. Taken thus, the brief playing time of each CD doesn’t seem like a shortfall, although I’d like to know the fate of the Stinson recordings that didn’t make it into this set.

Michael Hurley

Ida Con Snock (Gnomonsong)

Michael Hurley’s latest finds him paired with Ida. A good match: The latter, erstwhile slowcore practitioners, are more comfortably part of the cerebral-folk and alt-psych-Americana scene, who owe some of the elusiveness of their genre monikers to Hurley and his free-ranging ways. A relaxed set recorded in Woodstock and Brooklyn, the disc’s dozen songs mix covers with Hurley originals, most potently a couple from his back catalog. “Wildegeeses” is stirring from the first breathy draw of the bow across Jean Cook’s violin. Hypnotic and mysterious, it is gently foreboding in an utterly singular manner, adding a layer of gravity only hinted at when it first appeared on Weatherhole a decade ago. “Hog of the Forsaken” drills a hole through time, leaving you unsure of what time, day, or even year it is at the end of its four-and-a-half minutes.

Adding to the good-natured feeling that permeates these ensemble sessions are an assortment of songs from songbooks brimming with everything from the British Isles (a medley of “Loch Lomond” and “Molly Malone”) to novelty (“Ragg Mopp”), to ’50s rockers (Fats Domino’s “Valley of Tears”) and teen pop (“Going Steady”). As has been the case for pretty much the entirety of his 45-year career, Hurley’s music refuses to to be constrained by stylistics of marketing directives. Garage bands, front-porch strummers, solitary fishermen, bouncing children: Everybody gather ’round!

—David Greenberger

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