The 50-year copyright limit on recordings in Europe may be intended to put material into the "public domain" quickly for the benefit of the public, but its practical effect is to create a sort of gray market of unauthorized, unlicensed albums issued by bottom-feeding record companies that just master old vinyl records (or some legitimate company's CDs), paying nothing to artists who retain copyright on the recordings elsewhere in the world. Like many vintage artists, Woody Guthrie, who made virtually all his recordings in the 1940s, has been victimized in this manner by a flood of European discs, most of which deserve to be dismissed out of hand. British label Metro's entry into the unlicensed Guthrie sweepstakes, The Essential Woody Guthrie: Dust Bowl Balladeer, is a cut above its numerous competitors. It was compiled and annotated by a reputable music journalist, Patrick Humphries, who has made some attempt to justify its title. Instead of containing a random collection of tracks, the disc features many of Guthrie's best-known songs, starting with "This Land Is Your Land" and including among its 27 tracks 11 of his "dust bowl ballads," originally featured on two RCA Victor albums of 78s by that name. If Humphries had continued on to select some of Guthrie's Columbia River songs and a few other key tracks, this might have been a strong collection. Unfortunately, only one of the Columbia River songs is included, and that's a curiosity. It's "Grand Coulee Dam," which is one of the major numbers Guthrie wrote for the Bonneville Power Administration. But this take is a rare one in poor fidelity (it's clearly running too fast), albeit one that may excite collectors, since it features three rarely sung verses. Humphries fills up the generous 77-plus-minute running time with some of the off-the-cuff performances of old folk songs Guthrie and such friends as Cisco Houston and Leadbelly recorded for record company owner Moses Asch in the mid-'40s. Much of this material is entertaining, but usually it's hardly essential. Meanwhile, among the essential Guthrie songs that are inexplicably missing are "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" and "Pastures of Plenty." Humphries' liner notes are a little better than the usual, actually referring to the songs on the disc, for example. But they are grammatically challenged here and there, and not free from error (e.g., Arlo Guthrie was not Woody Guthrie's eldest son, as Humphries maintains). The album on the whole thus represents a missed opportunity.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann