Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Woody Guthrie, Cowboy Singer

Woody Guthrie has been so long and so strongly co-opted by the protest song/social justice folksinging performers of the music industry that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that Guthrie had a presence as a performer beyond that narrow niche. He participated willingly and enthusiastically in writing and performing songs promoting social progress, but that is still just one facet of his oeuvre. Indeed, Guthrie -- something of an icon in American music -- roamed freely among the folk-singing genres and traditions of the United States. One such territory in which he stepped was the cowboy/western song tradition.

During the 1940s, Woody Guthrie performed during a number of recording sessions for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage houses Asch’s archives and master recordings. The Institution has released all manner of LPs and CDs of these recordings, and among them is Woody Guthrie: Buffalo Skinners -- The Asch Recordings Volume 4. (Clicking the link takes you to the CD at Amazon.)

The Western-themed songs in this collection includes some standards -- “Red River Valley,” “Chisholm Trail,” “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Get Along Little Dogies” -- and some songs that may not be familiar to those who aren’t intensive cowboy-song audiophiles. Many were written by Guthrie, including “Ranger’s Command,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Dead or Alive (Poor Lazarus),” “Train Blues,” and “Slipknot.”

All these tunes were remastered for this compilation, and the sound quality is excellent. Listening to these songs puts me in mind of sitting around a campfire by the chuck wagon at roundup time. Highly recommended.