Friday, January 25, 2008

Review: Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly - Folkways: The Original Vision

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Released: April 25, 2005

It's interesting how sometimes, two completely different artists can embody the greatest facets of an entire style of music. For example, take a look at The Beatles and The Rolling Stones; one is the hopeful and adventurous warmth of daylight, while the other is the nihilistic swagger of darkness. And while rock fans love to debate the relative merits of each, they were both vital to the evolution and longevity of rock music. Neither band would have made as much of an impact had the other not been there as well.

Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were a pair much like The Beatles and the Stones. Sure, there were many similarities between the two. Both were musicians who left the world very different than they found it. Both were passionate men of great talent. Both captivated their audiences, whether they were playing for children or prisoners. From the little I've read, the two men had a genuine respect and fondness for each other, and they spent a good deal of time together both on and offstage.

But it would be hard to find two musicians as different as these two. Guthrie's voice is as inviting and pleasant as a warm spring afternoon. It's a bit thin and a bit nasally and it has a bit of a twang, but its charm reaches out to you with a warm hand and an open heart. His words are easy to understand, and you can sing along by the time the first verse is over. He offers some very complex and difficult subjects in his songs, but his voice is so accessible that people can listen to his music as entertainment without ever digging into the messages of his words.

Lead Belly, on the other hand, has a voice that is like a humid summer night. It's rough and raw and difficult, but it pulls you into its depths and holds you there like a blissful hostage. His words can be tough to decipher, but his voice is filled with truth and life. And his melodies... well, the man's music is filled with more catchy melodies than pretty much every teenybopper pop band put together. All of these things result in music that, like Guthrie's, greets listeners with a warm hand and an open heart.

Folkways The Original Vision is a good introduction to these two artists, but it's more than that. By the time you get to the end of "We Shall Be Free" (a lively performance that showcases the best aspects of both men), there's a good chance that you'll understand things you didn't understand before. You might understand that, sometimes, things aren't as different as they appear to be. You might understand that, sometimes, beauty and truth come in really unusual packages. You might understand that, sometimes, warm hands and open hearts appear where you least expect them.

The song selection is skewed toward Guthrie's music, but that's my only complaint. Overall, this is an excellent collection. Each song flows naturally into the next, and at times I became so absorbed in the flow of the music that I didn't even realize the singer had changed. And that might be the greatest strength of this collection: it lets the listener hear that these two completely different singers share the same musical heart.

Rating: 10/10


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