Woody Guthrie

The First Rays of Protest in the 20th Century

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European law limits the copyrights on recordings to only 50 years, and the Primo label ("Made in The Czech Republic") is one of many record companies to take advantage of that by issuing unlicensed collections by vintage artists. This album contains two 20-track discs, the first devoted to Woody Guthrie, the second to Pete Seeger. The Guthrie CD is a fairly typical best-of drawn from his Dust Bowl Ballads songs of 1940 (originally recorded for RCA Victor) and the many recordings of old folk songs he made informally for record company owner Moses Asch in the mid-'40s (now claimed by Smithsonian Folkways for the U.S.). "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Do Re Mi," "Pretty Boy Floyd," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" are among his better known songs to be included. One pitfall of Primo's dependence on secondary sources, including old vinyl records, is revealed during "Stackolee," when the needle apparently hangs up and the same line is repeated mid-song. The Seeger disc has other problems. Actually, none of the 20 tracks was credited to Seeger as a solo artist when released originally. The first 14 selections are drawn from the work of the Almanac Singers in 1941 and 1942; the last six all come from The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, an album recorded in December 1955, and thus new to the public domain as of January 1, 2006. Seeger does in fact sing lead on the Almanac tracks, sometimes by himself. The difficulty lies in the sequencing. The Almanac Singers began as an anti-war group, singing songs like "'C' for Conscription" in opposition to the military draft. Then, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, they made an abrupt about-face and began singing pro-war songs like "Round and Round Hitler's Grave." The trouble on this disc is that the sequencing mixes up the two groups of songs, so that the singers appear to go back and forth, with the anti-war "Plow Under" followed by the pro-war "The Sinking of the Reuben James," then back to pacifism for "The Strange Death of John Doe." When the Weavers tracks appear at the end, Seeger nearly disappears into the harmonies; on three songs, "Sixteen Tons," "Lonesome Traveller," and "Rock Island Line," it's the other Weavers, Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert, who take vocal solos, not Seeger, who contents himself with harmonizing on the choruses and playing the banjo. He does, however, sing lead on "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and "Pay Me My Money Down," and, as do each of the Weavers, gets one verse of "Goodnight Irene." Still, this will be an odd purchase for anyone expecting a Seeger best-of to go with the Guthrie highlights disc.

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