“You'll find God in the church of your choice; you'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital. And though it's only my opinion, I may be right or wrong, you'll find them both in the Grand Canyon at sundown.” – Bob Dylan, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”
If Mark Twain can be considered the father of American Literature – there were American born authors before him to be sure, but until Twain no writer had developed a quintessentially American style of storytelling, or to quote Hemingway, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn … All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” – perhaps Woody Guthrie should similarly be considered the father of American music.
At the very least, as the above quote from Bob Dylan shows, he’s the Abraham of American folk music. His songs served as the foundation for Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and dozens more, who in turn have served as the foundation for Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others since. Along with Robert Johnson, Guthrie is one of the seeds responsible for sprouting the orchard of modern American song. Even if you’ve never heard his music, you’ll find his influence echoing throughout your iTunes library.
This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth.
It’s telling to trace his influence by looking at how I discovered his music. Yes, I liked Bob Dylan’s music, but I came to Woody Guthrie by a far more roundabout route. As a teenager I became devoted to the punk band Rancid, and in their ode to teenage rebellion, “The War’s End,” there is a short reference to the British folk punk singer Billy Bragg; Rancid’s guitarist, Lars Frederiksen, covered Bragg’s “To Have and to Have Not” with his side project, Lars Frederiksen & The Bastards. Pretty soon I had downloaded as many of Bragg’s songs as I could find – this was back in the frontier days of Napster and Kazaa – which included a collaboration he had done with Wilco called “All You Fascists” (its chorus proudly declares, “All you Fascists are bound to lose!”).
This song was one of many collaborations between Bragg and Wilco, neither of whom had written any of these songs. They were unfinished and unrecorded songs penned by Woody Guthrie. At last count, Woody’s archives includes 3,002 songs (a new song was discovered just last week). Most of these were not recorded during his lifetime. Many have since been recorded by admirers, including Bragg and Wilco on their two-volume Mermaid Avenue collaboration recorded on behalf of the Guthrie Foundation. I soon discovered that Woody Guthrie was the grandfather of protest rock. For example, before he changed his name to Joe Strummer and began fronting The Clash, young John Mellor busked with the pseudonym of Woody Mellor.
Eventually, I decided that instead of just listening to covers by the Dropkick Murphys I ought to check out the music of the man himself. And I loved it. I had remembered being taught Guthrie’s most famous song “This Land is Your Land,” back in grade school. For years, I thought of it as much the same way as “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” just another meaningless patriotic anthem we teach to kids to foster their nationalism. But that was until I discovered the lyrics that they always cut out when they teach it to school kids, the lyrics that actually contain the meaning of the song:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
These subversive verses critiquing the notion of private property reveal Guthrie to be the best kind of patriot: the kind that demands better of his country. We need to remember the context in which Guthrie wrote and performed during the peak of his career. He was an Okie displaced by the Dust Bowl and, aside from perhaps John Steinbeck, Guthrie is our foremost chronicler of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Once in California, Guthrie found his calling playing protest songs for labor strikes.
Much of Guthrie’s music deals with gap between rich and poor, bemoaning the lack of justice in our society. In “I Ain’t Got No Home,” he tells the story of farmers who have had been dispossessed by banks, sourly declaring in the final verse: “Oh, the gamblin' man is rich an' the workin' man is poor.” In the ballad “Jesus Christ,” he lays the blame for Christ’s death on bankers and landlords, drawing parallels to American society, observing, “This song was written in New York City / Of rich man, preacher, and slave / If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee, / They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.”
During the Depression era, Guthrie’s voice thrived. By the time Roosevelt’s New Deal kicked in, Guthrie practically served as an unofficial poet laureate, singing songs in celebration of the great public works projects undertaken. At the outbreak of World War II, his staunch anti-fascist stance caused him to pen songs encouraging U.S. intervention as a moral duty while American politicians debated the prospect.
By the time of the McCarthy era Guthrie had fallen out of favor with much of the public because of his left-leaning politics. It should be noted that Guthrie was never a card-carrying Communist, as he was too much of an individualist and bristled at the Communism’s conformism. But that nuance didn’t matter much to people, and he played to increasingly shrinking crowds until Huntington’s disease forced him to stop playing and spend most of his last decade hospitalized (it was during this time that Dylan famously visited him at Brooklyn State Hospital). Sadly, his disease caused Guthrie to miss out on the folk revivals of the 1960s and, in October of 1967, he passed away.
But Guthrie’s activism and the political content of many of his songs may obscure the fact that Guthrie wrote about a great range of subjects: the beauty of the landscape, the thrill of journeys and car rides, the pain of loneliness, and even the skill and athleticism of Joe DiMaggio. He possessed a great sense of humor, and could be just as passionate about love as he was about politics.
One song that illustrates these often overlooked facets of Guthrie is “Ingrid Bergman,” an ode to classic screen star that is equally funny and heartbreaking, that was eventually recorded by Billy Bragg decades after Guthrie scrawled it in his notebook. Yes, he was an iconoclast, but he was also a song and dance man.
So in this age of auto-tuning, are Woody and his acoustic guitar still relevant? Absolutely.
"If you play more than two chords, you're showing off.” But that simplicity does not detract from their brilliance. Folk music is meant to be shared, hence the name. And unlike a piece of classical music that takes years of training to master, most Guthrie songs are accessible to novice guitar players. Like his disciple Dylan, Guthrie was not a trained singer; he just sung his lyrics with passion and because of that his songs hit you on a visceral level. But one reason his songs have been covered so frequently – and the Guthrie estate has been enthusiastic about having contemporary artists record his unfinished work – is what made Guthrie special was his writing. And they want to make sure that his writing is shared.
After all, Woody’s political beliefs were all about the need for more sharing. And once again we find ourselves in a period of economic woes in which the gap between rich and poor is painfully felt; in this environment perhaps there is no more fitting soundtrack than the songs of Woody Guthrie. Just this past week, the Occupy Wall Street movement held a national convention in Philadelphia to coincide with the celebration of Fourth of July in the city where our nation declared independence from tyranny. I can’t help but think that if he were alive today that Woody would have been there, guitar in hand, to lead everybody in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” making sure to include the verses my grade school left out.
Happy birthday, Woody.