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Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti

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Album Review

Recorded between 1946 and 1947, Woody Guthrie crafted a truly fascinating historical document that serves as something of a prototype for a concept album. The trial of Italian-born radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, which culminated in their execution in 1927, is one of the most controversial murder trials in the history of the American justice system; it remains to this day clouded with inconclusive findings. It was this trial that inspired Woody Guthrie to devote an entire album of songs in their defense, and in the process create some of the most fiery and impassioned verse in his recorded catalogue. Guthrie is known to have considered these songs among the most important that he'd ever written, and he is said to have thought the project to be one of his most significant. Many of the pieces have a strong sense of immediacy in them, with Guthrie stumbling over lines and missing chord changes, seemingly racing to get the message out. Some might not particularly agree with his clearly one-sided view of the entire trial, though the way in which he eloquently presents the facts of the case to the listener is a powerful statement for their defense. Still, Guthrie paints a picture of Sacco and Vanzetti that almost seems too good to be true, leaving them as martyrs for American freedom and legends of the progressive movement, calling them Boston's "most noble sons." This might be Guthrie at his most openly radical, with semi-revolutionary lyrics in "Red Wine" recounting the scene in Boston after the execution: "I thought those crowds would pull the town down./ I was hoping they'd do it and change things around." The songs themselves are in the classic Guthrie vein, in that they're all solo acoustic tracks, with the exception of "Sacco's Letter to His Son," which is a letter Sacco wrote on the eve of his execution, set to music by Pete Seeger. Though the material seems a little biased, and maybe rightly so, this is Woody Guthrie at his most sincere and inspired, and no matter where you stand on the vagaries of the trial, you can't argue with the way he honestly presents the humanity of the condemned. While an album completely devoted to a trial that took place over 75 years ago might not be everyone's ideal Guthrie album, it's a fascinating historical snapshot in time, when the Red Scare was a real threat — when folk singers saw injustice and tried to do something about it.


Born: 14 July 1912 in Okemah, OK

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s

Woody Guthrie was the most important American folk music artist of the first half of the 20th century, in part because he turned out to be such a major influence on the popular music of the second half of the 20th century, a period when he himself was largely inactive. His greatest significance lies in his songwriting, beginning with the standard "This Land Is Your Land" and including such much-covered works as "Deportee," "Do Re Mi," "Grand Coulee Dam," "Hard, Ain't It Hard," "Hard Travelin'," "I...
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