Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies
955 L'Enfant Plaza Ste. 2600 MRC 914
Washington, DC 20560
Muleskinner Blues is the second volume in an announced four-volume set of Woody Guthrie recordings by the legandary Moses Asch for Folkways Records in the early 1940s, and now housed at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies. Most of Guthrie's recordings are housed at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies. Smithsonian Folkways has been diligent about making these recordings available to the public with the finest sound quality possible and detailed liner notes. The recordings were compiled by Jeff Place, the Sound Archivist for the Center's entire sound collection, who has probably listened to more Guthrie recordings than anyone else. He has also overseen the transfer of the music from fragile master discs to tape and compact disc.
Volumes 1 and 3 of Woody Guthrie: The Asch Recordings feature original Guthrie compositions, whereas Volumes 2 and 4 contain traditional material. The second volume, this 25-track, 67-minute CD, features Guthrie (vocals, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica) and Cisco Houston (appearing frequently, on harmony vocals and guitar) and other backing musicians (e.g., Sonny Terry, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Pete Seeger). The uniqueness of these recordings is underscored by the fact that Guthrie plays the fiddle in some songs (Sally Goodin', Hen Cackle, Rye Straw), an instrument for which he was not known to be particularly skillful.
The liner notes -- some of the best I have ever read -- contain a biography of Guthrie, which continues across all four volumes. There is also a brief biography of Moses Asch, as well as notes by the archivist and compilers of this volume. The highlight of the liner notes, however, is a detailed discussion of each song, including information about the alternate titles (very important for such public-domain traditional songs), performers and instruments, source of the master recording for this volume, and discussions of what each song is about, or the history of the song itself, including lists of versions recorded by other artists. If nothing else, the liner notes make a good read about what life was like in the early part of the twentieth century and how the early recordings were produced and the remastering was accomplished.
The music speaks for itself. The historical nature of these recordings, most done during Guthrie's shore leave from the Merchant Marines in April 1944, staves off most of the critique. According to the liner notes, this four-CD set is an attempt to release as many of the 160 songs he recorded during this period as is feasible, given that recordings for some of those songs no longer exist, are beyond restoration, or are unworthy of reproduction.
As a newcomer to field recordings, I found the subject matter of the songs intriguing in its own right. The topics range from the tragic ballad of a train wreck (Wreck of the Old 97), the assassination of President McKinley (Baltimore to Washington), a prisoner serving a sentence for a murder he did not commit (21 Years"), adultery (Bed on the Floor), and cocaine use (Take A Whiff on Me). If a shortcoming of some traditional folk music is the inability of the listener to connect to the subject matter due to a weak melody, this recording does not suffer from such woes. The most memorable tunes are:: Bed on the Floor, Take a Whiff on Me, Stackolee, Worried Man Blues, and Gambling Man.
People Magazine (April 1997) claimed, "The projected four-CD set will be one of the indispensable documents of 20th-century American music," and this reviewer sees no reason to disagree with this statement.
Edited by Ed Cray