Album review: Woody Guthrie, American Radical Patriot (Rounder)

Album of the Week: How the dust-bowl refugee became bound for glory

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The Independent Culture

Collected here across six CDs, Woody Guthrie's recordings for the Library of Congress are one of the great treasures of American Demotic Art. Their mere existence seems, in an America latterly phobic about socialism, a miracle: the United States government preserving the songs and recollections of an avowed leftie – and, even more extraordinary, commissioning this ornery troubadour to write and perform songs celebrating and promoting the great public works of the New Deal and the country's war effort, and offering cautionary instructions about venereal disease. The modern equivalent would be something like Barack Obama commissioning Rage Against the Machine to document American inequality.

The original LOC recordings were made in 1940 by the archivist Alan Lomax, with Guthrie's performances of his hard-times anthems such as “Do Re Mi” and “I Ain't Got No Home” punctuating his account of his upbringing in Oklahoma and the dust-bowl drift of the impoverished to California. Impressed with the singer's folksy articulacy, Lomax helped get Guthrie appointed the following year to document in song the work of the Bonneville Power Administration, a hydro-electric project building dams on the Columbia River in Oregon. In a single month, he came up with “Grand Coulee Dam”, “Roll on, Columbia”, “Pastures of Plenty” and more.

Further morale-building work for the Office of War Information – including the classic “Sinking of the Reuben James” – was followed in the postwar era by another burst of energy on behalf of public health initiatives, during which he wrote a tranche of “VD Songs” and appeared in an STD-themed radio play, all included here alongside a DVD documentary featuring rare performance footage, and a 78 rpm vinyl disc of Bob Dylan's version of Woody's “VD City”. It's an extraordinary collection, which demonstrates exactly why Guthrie was perhaps the only performer who could square the circle pointedly implied by the title American Radical Patriot.

Download: Pastures of Plenty; So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh; Do Re Mi; Grand Coulee Dam; I Ain't Got No Home