Woody Guthrie – Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti – 1960 – Folkways

Woody Guthrie - Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti - 1960 - Folkways

This album was recorded in January 1947 but it wasn’t released until 1960. As far as “concept albums” go this is by far my favourite. Some credit the Beatles with inventing the concept album, some credit Frank Sinatra but really, no one invented the concept of the concept album. The idea of stringing together songs that relate to a theme of story and putting them together in one album is just a natural thing to do. Invented had nothing to do with it.

The album deals in forensic but passionate detail with the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who were excecuted in 1927 for the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli during a robbery at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. The confession of Celestino Madeiros to the murders didn’t help their situation. They were excecuted anyway. Many saw their conviction and excecution as being a reaction to their political beliefs rather than a result of looking at the evidence.

I’m presuming that this record was originally meant to be released as an album of 78s. If you don’t already know, before long playing records were the standard way of buying music you could buy albums that consisted of several 78s all together. They were an album like a photo album but instead of pages there were sleeves that held the records. There were two songs per disc, one on one side and one on the other so if you had 5 records in an album you had 10 songs. The delay in the release of these songs is probably due to Woody Guthrie not being happy with them. Regardless of Woody’s thoughts I feel that it is his best work. It nearly brings me to tears whenever I listen to the story in these songs.

The last song on this album, Sacco’s Letter to Son, is performed by Woody’s close friend Pete Seeger. The music to that song is by Pete and the words are Sacco’s own. They are his goodbye to his son. Going from Woody’s harsh and cracked voice telling the story and ending on Pete’s beautifully high and sweet voice singing a final goodbye is perfect – “If nothing happens they will electrocute us tonight… be brave so as to comfort your mother… help the weak ones at your side / The weaker ones that cry for help, the persecuted and the victim / They are your friends, friends of yours and mine…”

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