“Ballads Of Sacco And Vanzetti” by Woody Guthrie - album review

TJR says

At about three o'clock in the afternoon of April 15, 1920, Frederick Parmenter, a paymaster, and Alessandro Berardelli, his guard, were fired upon and killed by two men armed with pistols, as they were carrying two boxes containing the pay roll of the shoe factory of Slater and Morrill, amounting to $15,776.51, from the company's office building to the factory through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts.

In 1921, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian-Americans, were convicted of the robbery and the murder. Although the arguments brought against them were mostly disproven in court, the fact that the two men were known radicals (and that their trial took place during the height of the Red Scare) prejudiced the judge and jury against them. On April 9, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti's final appeal was rejected, and the two were sentenced to death and executed by electric chair in August 1927. For countless observers throughout the world, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted because of their political beliefs and ethnic background.

Fast forward to 1945 and Woody Guthrie is returning from Army service. Label boss Moe Asch offered him several hundred dollars to write a series of ballads about the event that still was a painful memory to many American leftists (including Asch himself) two decades after the fact. Woodyguthrie.de notes: Woody took the job gladly and ruminated — uncharacteristically — at length about how he might convey the anguish of the two Italian immigrants, wrongfully convicted of murder and robbery, awaiting death in the electric chair. He called the assignment “the most important dozen songs I've ever worked on”, and began filling a notebook with ideas in March of 1946. But despite Woody's ability to identify with their alienation and also, perhaps, their martyrdom, the songs wouldn't come… at least no real memorable songs came. The old country tunes, which had served so well for the Dust Bowl Ballads and the Columbia River songs and all the others, seemed unnatural and trite when applied to the agony of Sacco and Vanzetti; the results were superficial and forced.

For whatever reason, the album never came to be, and the project looked destined to remain unpublished. Fast forward to the summertime of 1960 and a two-part drama written by Reginald Rose aired nationally on NBC on June 3rd and 10th. After nearly half a year’s research, Rose portrayed the little shoemaker (Sacco) and the fish peddler (Vanzetti) who were executed for a crime they didn’t commit. One month after the TV drama, Woody’s shelved album finally saw the light of the day, being well-received in a July Billboard review in which they stated: “Woody Guthrie sings a series of ballads dedicated to the pair, and taking their side completely. Guthrie’s material is impressive and he sings his ballads with emotion. Pete Seeger sings “Sacco’s letter to his son” here too. The set contains a booklet with all the songs, and historical material.”

Quite why Asch and Guthrie contrived to abandon the project seems a bit of a mystery – not to mention a travesty. Sure, it’s heavy going – the “hit singles” are non-existent. What’s apparent is that a helluva lot of work went into researching the story; the seven year trial is excavated in great detail, and Woody has clearly got to know the characters of these men, as if preparing an autobiography. It almost seems like the project became so personal that he was being self-critical to the point that he felt he wasn’t doing the men justice. On “Red Wine”, Woody’s so distraught that he’s taken to the drink to numb the pain of the tale:

“Oh, pour me a glass of Germany's beer, Russia's hot vodky, so strong and clear, pour me a glass of Palestine's Hock, Or just a moonshiner's bucket of Chock. Now, let me think, and let me see, How these two men were found guilty, How a hundred and sixty witnesses passed by, And the ones that spoke for them was a hundred and five. Out of the rest, about fifty just guessed, And out of the five that were put to the test, Only the story of one held true, After a hundred and fifty-nine got through.”

“And on this one, uncertain and afraid, She saw the carload of robbers, she said, And one year later, she remembered his face, After seeing this car for a second and a half. She told of his hand, and his gun, his ears, She told of his shirt, and the cut of his hair, She remembered his eyes, his lips, his cheeks, And Eva Splaine's tale sent these men to the chair. I was right here in Boston the night they died. I never did see such a sight in my life; I thought those crowds would pull down the town, I was hoping they'd do it and change things around.”

The depth is typical of the album – I reasonably speculate that it would have been a complete impossibility for Woody to recite the entire contents of this set from memory in a live concert. Moe and Woody may not have thought it back in ’47 but “Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti” is topical folk at its brilliant best. It’s a blessing that it finally got the release that it deserved within the lifetime of both men. Better late than never I guess.

The Jukebox Rebel
05-Jun-2012


A1 [02:39] 7.0.png Woody Guthrie - I Just Want To Sing Your Name (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A2 [03:57] 8.0.png Woody Guthrie - Red Wine (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A3 [04:14] 6.8.png Woody Guthrie - You Souls Of Boston (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A4 [03:29] 7.6.png Woody Guthrie - Suassos Lane (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A5 [03:38] 8.2.png Woody Guthrie - The Flood And The Storm (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A6 [03:30] 7.3.png Woody Guthrie - Vanzetti’s Rock (Woody Guthrie) Folk
A7 [03:39] 7.0.png Woody Guthrie - Root Hog And Die (Woody Guthrie) Folk
B1 [04:16] 7.2.png Woody Guthrie - Old Judge Thayer (Woody Guthrie) Folk
B2 [03:48] 7.7.png Woody Guthrie - We Welcome To Heaven (Woody Guthrie) Folk
B3 [07:50] 8.9.png Woody Guthrie - Vanzetti’s Letter (Woody Guthrie) Folk
B4 [03:47] 9.0.png Woody Guthrie - Two Good Men (Woody Guthrie) Folk
B5 [03:21] 8.3.png Pete Seeger - Sacco’s Letter To His Son (Pete Seeger, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco) Folk




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