European law limits copyrights on recordings to 50 years, whether the recordings were made in Europe or not, which means that, for example, Woody Guthrie’s recordings, made in the U.S. in the 1940s, are all in the public domain (although they continue to be claimed by American record companies). A whole host of European reissue labels exist solely for the purpose of exploiting this anomaly by assembling unlicensed albums by vintage artists mastered from old vinyl records or even current CDs. These albums range from poorly compiled and annotated ripoffs to more scholarly and thorough efforts. Britain’s Proper Records leans toward the high end, putting together box sets with extensive booklets, and that’s the approach the label has taken with its Guthrie collection Some Folk. In terms of length, only the legitimate album The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 (Smithsonian Folkways) is in the class of this four-CD set, which contains 99 tracks and runs four hours and 42 minutes. Compiler/annotator Adam Komorowski has taken a simple chronological approach. The first disc is an abridged version of the three-disc set The Library of Congress Recordings that cuts out most of the spoken material in favor of the music. The second disc begins with the tracks from the Dust Bowl Ballads album and continues by copying the contents of The Columbia River Collection. That concludes at the start of the third disc, followed by four tracks with the Almanac Singers (one of which, “The Dodger Song,” features Lee Hays on lead vocals, with Guthrie buried in the chorus), and then the rest of the third disc and all of the fourth contain excerpts from Guthrie’s large catalog of casually recorded folk songs done for record company owner Moses Asch in the mid-’40s. (Among these, “Sowing on the Mountain” features Cisco Houston on lead vocals, with Guthrie singing harmony, and the version of “Sinking of the Reuben James” is actually the Almanac Singers version, with Pete Seeger on lead vocals; although Guthrie co-wrote the song, he isn’t present on the track.)
It’s a straightforward approach, but there are reasons nobody else has done it this way. Guthrie recorded his sessions for the Library of Congress in March 1940 and made the Dust Bowl Ballads recordings for RCA Victor Records in April and May of the same year. Not surprisingly, he performed many of the same songs: “Dust Storm Disaster” (aka “The Great Dust Storm”), “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” (aka “Dusty Old Dust”), “Do-Re-Mi,” “Dust Bowl Refugee,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” and “Dust Pneumonia Blues.” So, all those songs get repeated within the first two discs of this collection. And they aren’t the only songs that turn up multiple times. “I Ride an Old Paint” (aka “Ride Around Little Doggies”), “Ramblin’ Round,” “Worried Man Blues” (a/k/a “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song”), and “New Found Land” are all here twice, and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” turns up three times, two of them the exact same recording. This would be less troubling if the set didn’t omit some of Guthrie’s important work. Except for “Ship in the Sky” (which is actually more of a World War II number), none of his children’s songs appear. Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti also goes unrepresented. This, then, is a collection that appears thorough and comprehensive at first glance, but proves not to be upon examination. The same thing is true of Komorowski’s liner notes, which take up most of the 48-page booklet. They are long, but an actual reading of them reveals that they are a rehash of information found in Joe Klein’s biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, written in stilted prose sprinkled with typos, grammatical mistakes, and factual errors.
Four CD Proper box set featuring 99 of the Folk legends’ most beloved tracks. Woody Guthrie is enshrined in American folklore, not only because of his significant body of work but through his considerable influence on successive generations. This is the most comprehensive overview of the most important part of his career to be found in one set.