The Austin Chronicle

The Boxing Lesson

Box sets grow up and out

By Kevin Curtin, December 20, 2013, Music

Woody Guthrie

American Radical Patriot (Rounder)

Capping the centennial commemoration of America's folksinging godfather, American Radical Patriot assembles a coffeetable collection of six CDs, a DVD, and a heavy vinyl 78 uncovering Woody Guthrie's government labors. Bill Nowlin contextualizes the commissions: Library of Congress sessions, songs for the Bonneville Power Administration, war ballads, and a public health series about venereal disease. In doing so, the author reveals an unbleached truth-teller who rallied for the common man alongside seven whopping hours of audio. One 1940 session with musicologist Alan Lomax sequentially yields outlaw odes "Billy the Kid," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Jesse James," and another about taking from the rich and giving to the poor: "Jesus Christ." "I suppose in his own day and time he was called an outlaw," muses Guthrie. Patriot pays special attention, particularly on the DVD documentary, to Guthrie's one-month 1941 tenure with the BPA, for whom he wrote 26 songs capturing the nature and humanity along Oregon's Columbia River with Whitman-esque prose like "the misty, crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray" in "Grand Coulee Dam." The 78 features the Okie's 1951 home recording of "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done" and protégé Bob Dylan singing Guthrie's syphilis warning "VD City" a decade later.

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