In March 1940, 28-year-old folksinger Woody Guthrie, newly arrived in New York City, played at a benefit for migrant workers, where he encountered Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk-Song at the Library of Congress. Lomax invited Guthrie to Washington, D.C., to be interviewed and perform songs for the archive. These were not intended to be commercial recordings, but in 1964, at the height of the folk revival for which Guthrie served as the godfather, they were released by Elektra Records in a three-LP box set. In the first volume, recorded March 21, 1940, Lomax explores Guthrie's life story and his reflections on rural life in the American Southwest, and Guthrie punctuates his observations with songs, all of them traditional tunes until the final 15 minutes. Guthrie is surprisingly candid about the troubles in his family during his upbringing, including the fires that burned down one of their homes, killed his sister, and injured his father; he also acknowledges that his mother died in an insane asylum, although he does not name Huntington's disease, which he himself later would turn out to have inherited, as the culprit. Lomax shows an interest in the bawdier aspects of country life that belies his government position, but Guthrie feigns not to remember the salty drinking toasts of his youth. Lomax is earnest, if slightly condescending, as his frequent use of the phrase "you people" reveals. Guthrie both identifies his people, the Okies forced off their land in the Dust Bowl and left to become migrant workers, and distinguishes himself from them. By the end, he introduces his own musical commentary in a trio of original songs that will rank among his standards: "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," and "Do-Re-Mi." Guthrie's earliest recordings, these songs and stories offer an invaluable look into the life and recollections of the major folk music artist of his time.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann