Throughout his career Woody Guthrie made no excuses or apologies for his left-wing political leanings. But what is surprising is that some of his best work was done for the US government. Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot contains all the music he created for the Library of Congress, Bonneville Power Administration, "government recordings" he made during world war two, and V.D. recordings made for the United States Public Health Service.
Produced by Bill Knowlin at Rounder Records and The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot includes six CDs, one DVD, and one 78 rpm record containing Bob Dylan's rendition of "VD City." The first four CDs are a complete catalog of Woody's Library of Congress recordings, the fifth and sixth CD have his PBA, war-effort, and VD songs, and the DVD contains a documentary film, made in 1999 at the University of Oregon called "Roll On Columbia" about Woody's BPA songs.
The packaging for Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot is as special as the music inside. Designed by Nancy Given, the entire boxed set is inside an LP-sized package that features a cover that resembles an old college thesis book. Inside is a 60-page article written by Bill Irwin about Guthrie and a link to a longer 285-page version that's available on the DVD and online in PDF format.
With sections such as, "Was Woody Guthrie a 'Communist' or a 'Commonist'?" the text is as thought provoking as Woody's music. Author Bill Nowlin asks early on, "Was it a paradox that a 'radical' would record songs for a government he opposed?" Nowlin's title sums up his own feelings. But it's the contradictions inherent in that title that Nowlin explores in depth in his liner notes and is central to understanding Woody Guthrie's body of work.
Sonically the box sets quality varies from Ok to pretty good. The library of congress recordings are on the dry side with a slightly peaky upper midrange. The BPA songs on disc five were taken from 78 discs and have the usual surface noise and whoosh that accompanies with many 78's. Also many of the disc-sourced cuts have additional distortion on the dynamic peaks, but even the worst sounding cuts are at least listenable. But keep in mind these ARE at least 50-year-old recordings, so don't expect a wide harmonic or dynamic range, and every recording has some amount of needed filtering and noise reduction.
Limited to only 5000 copies, Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot offers both Woody's fans and critics an opportunity to hear music that had never been heard except by a small handful of researchers. For the music alone, Woody Guthrie - American Radical Patriot is a must-have for any serious American folk fan. But Bill Irwin's scintillating article combined with the lovely album design and packaging makes this box even more special and worthy of acquisition.