RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's take a moment now, to remember one of America's great folk singers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")
WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) This land is your land, and this land is my land. From California to the New York island. From the Redwood forest...
MONTAGNE: Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, 100 years ago tomorrow. Around the country, people have been celebrating his centennial with music festivals and lectures. But as NPR's Vince Pearson reports, Guthrie was also a gifted visual artist and wrote thousands of songs in a career that lasted just over 15 years.
VINCE PEARSON, BYLINE: These are some of the takeaways from a new book and CD collection called "Woody at 100." It's a coffee table book filled with glossy prints of Guthrie's artwork, and three music CDs. The book was written by Jeff Place and Robert Santelli. I visited Place at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, where he works as an archivist.
JEFF PLACE: Yeah, I thought we'd step back intro the great vault - you know - full of like, walls and walls of recordings.
PEARSON: On the shelves are hundreds of old Guthrie records. A big map drawer holds stacks of original paintings and drawings. And there are some personal items, too, like this old American history book.
PLACE: There's a book that belonged to Woody, and he's basically going through the entire book - and underlined every sentence. And he's, in the margins, debating Jefferson and people like that, about - you know, the politics; you know, beginnings of the United States. So, you know, if people want to know kind of what Woody was thinking, you can really kind of get in here and do that.
PEARSON: Place says he's been researching Woody Guthrie for 25 years. And he's still turning up new material.
PLACE: That's just Woody in general. Woody was such a creative individual. He'd be wandering along somewhere and record something, and leave it behind. So I keep finding, you know, tape boxes with nothing on them. And you put it on, and there's a Woody Guthrie track you haven't heard before.
PEARSON: The book includes some of the best of these finds, including four never-before released tracks thought to be Guthrie's earliest recordings.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GUTHRIE: (Singing) Oh, I've been skidding around down on Skid Row. I've been skidding around down on Skid Row. It's the skiddiest street in town. I've been skidding up and down. I've been skidding up and down on the Skid Row.
PEARSON: Guthrie was a little-known country singer when he recorded this song in 1939. He was working for a politically oriented radio program in California that was popular among dispossessed Oklahomans who'd moved west to find work. Here's Guthrie in his own words, introducing another song from that era.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GUTHRIE: As I rambled around all over the country and kept looking at all these people, seeing how they lived outside like cows, around in the trees and timber and under the bridges; along all the railroad tracks and in their little shack houses that they built out of cardboard and tow sacks and old, corrugated iron, it just struck me to write this song, called "I Ain't Got No Home in the World Anymore."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T GOT NO HOME IN THE WORLD ANYMORE")
GUTHRIE: I ain't got no home. I'm just a rambling 'round...
PEARSON: Robert Santelli is a co-author of "Woody at 100." He says Guthrie felt a responsibility to write songs about the problems he saw. Santelli, who also happens to run the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, believes this activist spirit is lacking in today's popular music.
ROBERT SANTELLI: And so the whole hope, with the celebration of Woody Guthrie, is not only to celebrate his life and the importance of his music, but also to demonstrate how music can act as an agent for social and political change in this country.
PEARSON: He hopes young musicians who hear the music, and read the book, will follow Guthrie's lead. Vince Pearson, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER WORLD")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) There's a better world a comin', tell you why, why, why. There's a better world it's a coming, I'll tell you why. We will beat them on the land, on the sea and in the sky, there's a better world a comin'... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.