Published Sep 20, 2017Woody Guthrie died in late 1967. Soon after, two tribute concerts were planned: one in 1968 in New York, and one in 1970 in Los Angeles.
Bear Family, who has always done excellent archival work, has released those two albums in a handsome boxed set. The tributes were done at just the right time, that brief period between mourning his loss and the development of a cynical marketing of memory. Woody Guthrie seems to be revived every decade or so, be it Bruce Springsteen singing him for Obama's inauguration, the Billy Bragg/Wilco albums, or the recent uncovering of a song he wrote about Trump's father.
Outside of nostalgia, though, much of the work still feels necessary: Judy Collins' crystalline voice, and subtle under-selling, makes the immigrant saga of "Deportees" even more tragic, while the tight harmonies of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger singing "So Long" blossoms into an audience sing-along that made a point about democracy in ways that were as light and loose as Baez has ever been. There is an Odetta performance, also about rambling, which is complex, subtle and slowly, overwhelmingly sublime.
Overall, Guthrie's legacy makes this set a vital one. Here's hoping similar sets, for artists like Odetta, see release too.
Editor's note: Minor changes have been made to this review since publication due to factual errors.