This year, two American musical revolutionaries—John Cage and Woody Guthrie—will get the legacy treatment with various centennial celebrations, sets, and coronations. Cage’s influence and import aren’t difficult to acknowledge, but they can be slippery to tag and trace; the composer and thinker who retooled our thoughts about silence, chance, and the very definition of music made a career out of loosening circumscription. But like the direct, wisdom-loaded songs he wrote, Guthrie’s rays of influence are clear and easily identified, big, strong roots that have cut ever since through the worldwide musical landscape. Guthrie’s peripatetic lead is a trail that’s often been followed: by his son, Arlo, by his spiritual kid Bob Dylan, by bleating singers like Conor Oberst and John Darnielle, and by contemporary songwriters with pens of passion, if not necessarily rage
Consequently, it doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting to get music lovers to recognize Guthrie’s importance. “This Land Is Your Land” still persists as an alternative national anthem, and numbers like “Talking Dust Bowl,” “Hard, Ain’t It Hard,” and “I’ve Got To Know” remain well known to anyone interested in this country’s vernacular. But the three-disc Smithsonian Folkways box set Woody At 100 smartly works to pull Guthrie from the musty pages of history. “Because so many Americans have been out of work and the newspapers filled with foreclosures and bank bailouts… the spirit of Woody Guthrie is as restless and anxious as it’s ever been,” writes co-producer Robert Santelli in a persuasive essay about a musician known not only for simple profundity but also sheer prolificacy. “If he were still alive, he’d have more songs to write than he could handle.”
One strength of this set—apart from its generous but judicious stockpile of Guthrie art, artifacts, and analysis—is that it doesn’t overwhelm. It surveys Guthrie’s hallmarks, digs into some of the standards, and takes great care to show the emotional range of his work. Here’s a writer, after all, who was fine making listeners laugh (“Riding In My Car (Car Song)”), cry (“The Sinking Of The Reuben James”), wonder (“The Grand Coulee Dam”), and rage (“Buffalo Skinners”). On “Jesus Christ,” Guthrie paints Jesus as a poor hobo with principles and pride, a Robin Hood-like carpenter with a flock of followers persecuted by the rich and powerful only because they feared him. A song about revolution and its consequences, it feels as relevant as ever. This is a box set, so there are less-essential rarities, including 21 unreleased performances and six never-before-heard tracks. They’re mostly relegated to the last disc, though, and by then Woody At 100 has already done right by a man who wrote songs about people, for people.