Woodie Guthrie box set full of treasures

Until her final years, Lucia Sutera — a retired ultrasonongrapher — never checked the cardboard barrels in her padlocked storage bin in her Brooklyn apartment building’s basement. A neighbor, the daughter-in-law of Stinson Records’ late owner Herbert Harris, had left them to her, mentioning that they contained unissued recordings by America’s populist poet laureate, Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie (1912-67). These metal masters of 1944 sessions — done amid the heat of World War II — became the source of his new four-CD, 158-minute box My Dusty Road (Rounder).

Many of  the 54 tracks enjoy accompaniment by Cisco Houston on guitar and Sonny Terry on harp. Six numbers — his country blues “Bad Repetation,” three  traditional pieces and two war songs — found on no other Guthrie recording  are strong but not earth-shaking.

The four CDs are titled topically: Woody’s Greatest Hits (“This Land Is Your Land,” “Hard Travelin’”), Woody’s Roots (folk, country blues and cowboy songs including several Carter Family standards), Woody The Agitator (union songs, two-part “Harriet Tubman’s Ballad”) and Woody, Cisco and Sonny (trad songs, a square-dance medley and wild-fire harp foray “Sonny’s Flight”). Ever one to adapt existing songs for new purposes, Guthrie turned the gospel number “When The Saints Go Marching In” into war-era “When The Yanks Go Marching In.”

Guthrie and friends were clearly enjoying themselves at these exuberant sessions. Occasional stretches when they’re out of sync with each other make the performances sound all the more human.

Actually, these tapes boast brighter and more personal-sounding audio than their later pressings. As engineer Doug Pomeroy says in the box’s booklet (which includes Guthrie’s bright-hued art and some typewritten lyrics), “Metal masters transferred directly via a high-resolution analog-to-digital converter, then straight to a CD are going to sound superior to any pressed record.” A cool, dry basement was a fortuitous place to preserve the nickel-plated copper master recordings (much of the material by the likes of Leadbelly, Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum was released long ago on Stinson and sometimes Folkways). 

Nora Guthrie, head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, states, “There’s been an acceptance that my father only sang three notes and played three chords, which often was true. With these restorations, we’re finding his wider range and hearing how much more melodic he was. It’s not the Bob Dylan version of Woody, which was three notes Bob picked up. He turns out to have been a much better singer and guitar player than we’d thought.”




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