Say what you want about Ani DiFranco; she knows how to associate herself with certified, 100 percent American radical pains in the ass. Fortunately, DiFranco has a certain amount of freedom in this respect; her albums, distributed through her Buffalo-based Righteous Babe label, are popular enough by now that she can afford not to give much of a damn how her folk-punk fan base reacts when she releases oddball albums like her collaborations with infamous radical songwriter Utah Phillips. The Phillips/DiFranco albums simply would not exist on a major label, given the very genuine anarchy championed in Phillips' lyrics and stories; yet exist they do on Righteous Babe, and if only one out of 10 DiFranco fans picks up on Utah Phillips as a result, she'll have performed a service worthy of a lifetime's cool points.
Now Righteous Babe brings forth 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, a record of a September 1996 concert at Severance Hall in Cleveland, mounted by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame & Museum and the New York-based Woody Guthrie Archives. Though much more popularly accepted than Utah Phillips, Guthrie -- another genuine American pain in the ass -- is no less troublesome now than he was in his own heyday, the 1930s and 1940s. But in order to hear Guthrie's music in its vital political context, he has to be rescued from his innocuous-folkie popular image. We need to learn to rehear Guthrie for what he actually was: a loudmouth radical whose songs are populist vignettes; a fiercely committed socialist who believed that music could preserve history as well as tell stories, a man whose guitar bore the legend "This Machine Kills Fascists" and whose most enduring song, "This Land Is Your Land," isn't the harmless campfire sing-along it's generally thought to be, but rather a straight-up agitators' anthem.
'Til We Outnumber 'Em -- the title comes from a classic protest story about two rabbits cornered in a hollow log by a pack of bloodhounds -- presents Guthrie's music mostly in this dangerous light, setting hard-hitting songs like "1913 Massacre" and "Against the Law" alongside better-known tunes like "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" and "Do Re Mi." A collection of performers and songwriters including DiFranco, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, Fred Hellerman, Country Joe McDonald and Billy Bragg work their way through covers of Woody Guthrie songs and readings from his autobiographical writings. The results are mostly excellent, as on DiFranco's energetic "Do Re Mi" and Guthrie contemporary Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Talking Dust Bowl"; only occasionally are they merely good, as is the case with Dave Pirner's somewhat reserved performance on "Pretty Boy Floyd."
Every one of the tracks on 'Til We Outnumber 'Em shows these performers paying respect without sounding unduly important, which makes sense when you consider how populist Guthrie's songs are. When we talk about Guthrie, we're not talking about "Great Art," we're talking about popular music in the real, unmodified sense of the phrase. Hearing such a wide cross section of Guthrie's songwriting craft (Springsteen's jalopy-bounce delivery on "Riding in My Car" perfectly balances Billy Bragg's caustic rendition of "Against the Law," which precedes it) reminds us that the prolific songwriter grandfathered, essentially by himself, several strains of folk and protest music in their contemporary forms. But for direct evidence, as good a series of performances as 'Til We Outnumber 'Em offers, it doesn't hold a candle to the originals to be found on Buddha Records' rerelease of Guthrie's own Dust Bowl Ballads.
The Woody Guthrie recordings released on RCA Victor in 1940 as Dust Bowl Ballads Volumes One and Two were combined into one album as early as 1964, and first collected on CD in 1988. Buddha's rerelease of these 14 originals is a repackaging in the best sense, however, offering an alternate take of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" and reprinting Guthrie's own extensive liner notes from the original recordings. In addition, the surface noise that has dogged every reissue of Dust Bowl Ballads has been eliminated here; from a purely technical standpoint, the sound quality of these recordings is superb.
"This bunch of songs," Guthrie writes, "is really just one song, 'cause I used the same notes. Just fixed 'em a little, that's all. Same old notes as ever." Similarly, in his brief introductory note, Dave Marsh makes a compelling argument for hearing Dust Bowl Ballads as a genuine song cycle, a notion tough to reject. Throughout the course of the album, we hear first-person accounts of the arrival of the drought in "The Great Dust Storm"; an apocalyptic vision of hundreds of migrants running just ahead of the destruction in "So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh"; the epic two-part tale of Tom Joad; the shattering of the illusory California promised land in "Do Re Mi"; "Vigilante Man," the specter of violence and poverty that haunts the ruined Southwest; and the tough old-timer who claims "Dust Cain't Kill Me," despite the slow devastation of his family and land, finally taken down in "Dust Pneumonia Blues."
What we have on Dust Bowl Ballads is at once a fully realized song cycle, populist American history and possibly the definitive folk album of the first half of the 20th century, if not the entire 100 years.
Guthrie's haunting tales of migrant workers and ragged Okie families blown west by poverty and drought come through clear as an unmuddied river on Dust Bowl Ballads, even 60 years after its initial release. As with John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, a book Guthrie knew and loved, the characters who tell the stories on Dust Bowl Ballads represent thousands of other people like them, implying an entire community behind each single narrator. Grapes of Wrath re-created and preserved a whole cross section of the American populace using nothing more than black ink on a white page; in the same fashion, Dust Bowl Ballads isn't anything more than vocals, guitar and harmonica. But in the spaces between its notes, you'll hear a part of American history that has never been preserved so eloquently. If you've somehow come this far without hearing it, you're in for an enviable experience.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.