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…”
I can’t remember exactly where or when I bought this (though I can say it would have been when I was a teenager). I do remember that it was my first Woody Guthrie. If you’ve been reading my posts you can probably guess what I’ll say next… I had never heard Woody until I bought this record. I’d read about him a lot especially in Bob Dylan biographies but no one I knew had any records and the radio certainly didn’t play Woody. Woody wrote about 1,500 songs. He was a great songwriter. I loved this record as soon as I heard the first sixty seconds. There is such energy to Woody’s sound. I did’t care that most people think he couldn’t sing or play. He could. He just didn’t sound like what most people think singing is about because his voice was rough hewn, the sounds he made were guttural and raw and the accents in his voice were heavy with a nasal twang. Why would that mean that he could’t sing though? Beats me. Singing doesn’t have to be nice and smooth, it can be harsh and abrasive. Whatever works. This is a great record with great performances. Woody is joined by Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. Sonny Terry used to play with Brownie McGee. The first thing to notice about this record is the cover. Yes, my copy is bruised and battered. That is the way it was when I bought it. It seems appropriate for a Woody Guthrie record that it would be a bit weathered. Also you’ll notice that the cover is printed cheaply. Folkways record covers always had cheaply printed but well designed record covers. The designers were good at making the cheap printing an asset rather than a deficit. Often the covers looked like they used just a one or two colour process. This one looks like they’ve actually gone all out and done three colours, there’s the green colour, the black for some of the text and theres the grey that is down below, then of course the white of the paper is what they’ve used for the white text. My guess is that these covers were hand printed. They always looked good. Folkways records always came with an insert inside the cover, a little booklet that often contained lyrics and information, sometimes even musical notation and chord diagrams for the songs. Unfortunately this record was missing the booklet when I bought it. It’s a shame but I have downloaded a PDF of it from the Smithsonian Folkways site. Ah, that is the other interesting thing about Folkways. You can still get copies of every single album that they’ve ever released. Though these are on CD now or downloads whichever you prefer. They had some great artists on their label – Peter La Farge, Brownie McGee, Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Elizabeth Cotton, Leadbelly, Barbara Dane, Mary Lou Williams and so on. Early on I started to notice their distinctly styled album covers and if I noticed one I’d instantly be keen on buying the record. It wouldn’t matter who or what it was I just knew it would be worth hearing.
This record opens with Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy. I never knew if that was meant to be double entendre or not but it was a good song. Talking Hard Luck Blues, the second song is my favourite. The other ones I really like are Danville Girl and A Picture from Life’s Other Side. There’s a real humanity to all these songs, a warmth even in the sad and lonely ones. I’m not sure if Woody wrote any of these songs or not. Some of them are definately old folk songs. Some may be his. Before writing this post I checked some of the songs online at the Harry Fox Agency and that didn’t make it any clearer. The label on this record claims that the songs are all Woody’s. Some of the songs like Danville Girl are even more confusing having a listing at the Harry Fox Agency for a song by Woody and for a song written by both Woody and Cisco Houston. Presumably both are the same song. I think what may have happened is that with some of the songs Woody and Cisco have listed themselves as arrangers and the strange tides of time have obscured the details a bit. Who knows? But whether this has any songs actually penned by Woody or not it was a great introduction to his work. It’s a great record. I will digress now and say that if you ever get a chance have a read of Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, it is one of the best things you will ever read.