Woody Guthrie

Folk Songs, Vol. 1

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In the spring of 1944, fresh off a torpedoed merchant marine ship, Woody Guthrie began showing up at the offices of Moses Asch's Asch Records, where the record company owner let him make recordings informally; Guthrie would appear either alone or with a friend, usually his merchant marine partner Cisco Houston, but also Sonny Terry, Bess Hawes, and/or Leadbelly, and they would cut dozens of old folk songs, some with newly written lyrics by Guthrie, plus some of Guthrie's outright originals. The masters quickly piled up into the hundreds, far more than even a major label could release, and Asch had only issued a fraction of them by 1947, when he went bankrupt. That had ominous implications for Guthrie's discography, since some of the masters were retained by Asch's creditors, including his former partner, Herbert Harris of Stinson Records. The two disputed ownership of the material, but neither seems to have had the money for a legal battle. Asch, returning to solvency, put his Guthrie tracks out on his newly formed Folkways Records, while Harris released his on Stinson. The co-billing to Houston here is appropriate in the sense that he is heard on most of the songs, providing a tenor harmony on the choruses and sometimes even the verses. Guthrie sings alone only on "Gypsy Davy," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Buffalo Skinners," and "Ranger's Command," and Houston probably is serving as an instrumentalist on at least one of these. (It's not clear who plays what, although some tracks seem to have two guitars or a guitar and mandolin on them.) Although not credited on the disc, Terry plays harmonica on "Hey Lolly Lolly" and "Lonesome Day." The sound quality is iffy, indicative of possibly second-generation masters, and, of course, the performances have a first-take, near-rehearsal feel. That doesn't keep the music from being stirring on occasion. But folk music fans should note that this isn't really the Woody Guthrie of "This Land Is Your Land." Most of the songs are traditional ones, and the musical approach is closer to that of an old-timey country string band like the Monroe Brothers than it is to the urban folk that took its inspiration from Guthrie. (The album is pressed on red vinyl.)

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