This week I review a great new Woody Guthrie box set and an upcoming release by the band Incubus.
"Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, Smithsonian, Folkways
Folk singer Woody Guthrie was a product of his times who composed and recorded an impressive body of music of a tumultuous time in our nation's history. This exquisite three-CD and hardback biography celebrating Guthrie's 100th birthday currently is available on Amazon.com for about 66 bucks.
Guthrie is probably best known for composing "This Land is Your Land," a song he originally wrote as a "response" to Kate Smith's very popular version of "God Bless America." It wasn't that Guthrie was anti-American in the classical sense, even though he was a popular figure in left-wing intelligentsia circles in the 1930s and '40s - Guthrie just had a sense that America may be blessed but it also had its share of problems during those years of the Great Depression and World War II.
He's also known to most as the father of singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, who, in turn, is best known for his classic "Alice's Restaurant," a popular favorite amongst the Woodstock crowd.
Guthrie has been called many things, including folk hero, patriot, communist, deadbeat, socialist, genus and almost everything in between. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as Guthrie's real legacy lie in the hundreds of songs he recorded about an America not everyone knew about, saw or even cared.
An Oklahoma native with a strong and passionate sense of social justice, Guthrie was enraged by what he saw as the little guy getting screwed by banks, lawyers, rampant racism and out-of-control corporate greed. He was a populist above all, a real folk singer who rambled across the land and was just at home in New York City as the dustbowl of the Midwest.
Guthrie was far too undisciplined to be a communist or socialist, but he did write an amazing number of songs that dealt with injustice he witnessed during his hoboesque wanderings. A real "trainjumper" - Guthrie's favorite mode of transportation during the Depression - he would abandon his family for weeks or even months at a time, hit the road and write and sing songs about the America he saw behind the facade.
This three-CD set includes many of the songs that made Guthrie a legend, including "This Land is Your Land" with the "banned" verses, his - to some, infuriating - take on "Jesus Christ," "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and another well-known song made famous by the bard, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya."
One of the most fascinating aspects of Guthrie's songwriting was his ability to write simple songs that were instantly memorable, painting vivid pictures with few words.
Guthrie wasn't a hugely talented singer or guitarist, but his voice had a plainspokeness and Okie drawl the common man could identify with, along with a knack for crafting hooks. He was a huge influence on Bruce Springsteen, John Couger Mellencamp and especially Bob Dylan, who went and visited Guthrie shortly before his death.
Guthrie also wrote wonderfully empathic children's songs with real heart that are totally delightful, including the warm "Riding in My Car (the Car Song)."
The hardback book also comes with dozens of Woody's drawings, usually of something interesting he saw while on the road, and they reveal him as a talented artist with an eye for pathos. Lots of photos of him performing also are included, including one of my personal favorites of Guthrie posing with a sticker adorning his guitar that read "This Machine Kills Fascists." Beautiful!
The book's essays are illuminating and written with a reverence of Guthrie's legacy.
If I have one small beef it's that I would have appreciated an additional CD of Gurthie's music, but it's a small complaint. This package is a great place to start to learn about one of America's true characters and a dark time in American history.
Incubus, "HQ Live Special Edition," Sony Legacy
The band Incubus in perhaps best known for its monster and bittersweet hit "Drive" in 1999, but the band has always been much more than a typical pop flavor-of-the-week. In fact, the band's best album, "A Crow Left of the Murder," wasn't released until 2004.
Incubus has released several albums since, and I've always respected this band's quirky songs and its poetic nature.
Incubus is a band with staying power that amassed a true fan base over the years with its smart songs that are well beyond the average '90s bands' grasp. Artsy but still rocking, Incubus comes close at times to being America's Radiohead, but with a definite personality in the age of Pro-Tooled, over-compressed and tweeked music.
This time out Incubus gives the fans what they want in the form of an intimate live show recorded before a crowd of adoring fans featuring selections from the band's past 20 years. I might also add Incubus includes some killer players, and that also accounts for the band's longevity. Highly recommended for fans and the curious alike.
(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)