A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it, or it could be who’s hungry and where their mouth is or who’s out of work and where the job is or who’s broke and where the money is or who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is. —Woody Guthrie, in a 1940 letter to folk music historian Alan Lomax
This year seemed perfect for centennial celebrations of songwriter Woody Guthrie’s birth in Okemah, Okla. In the shadow of political conflict, the pleasure of singing his songs in the company of like-minded people mingled with a longing to have him back in person. Singers, scholars, activists and ordinary fans remembered Guthrie’s work and inspiration in festivals, conferences and concerts across the United States and in Canada and Europe.
With the gap between privileged and poor widening as people lose jobs and homes, it’s a fine time to explore the Woody Guthrie songbook. His lyrics about outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd are timeless: “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
Then and now, plain talk can be magical when you live each day in uncertainty. That’s how it was in the 1930s when Guthrie came along, one of too many Dust Bowl refugees arriving in California. Those who weren’t turned back by border security usually found themselves camping in farm irrigation ditches or following the harvests in search of piecework.
Guthrie didn’t mince words. Pointed, political, his lyrics always championed the exploited. He warned that California was no Eden: “Believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot, if you ain’t got the do re mi.”
But he offered hope too. Encouraging people to find common cause and stand together, Guthrie sang in migrant worker camps and union halls as he hitchhiked across the country. Always, he kept writing and singing: Bound for Glory, Pastures of Plenty, Hobo’s Lullaby and hundreds more.
His best-known song reminded those without power This Land Is Your Land. Today, it’s too often seen as an alternative anthem praising the beauty of the United States — which it does. But few hear all the verses, the ones about the no-trespassing sign or relief lines.
Guthrie isn’t easy to classify. He saw Jesus as a working-class hero. At the same time, he supported communism (a “commonist” is how his daughter Nora describes him). For him, Christianity and communism were compatible. He wrote columns for the Daily Worker but didn’t join the party. He penned anti-war songs but signed up for the Merchant Marine after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The words on his guitar read, “This machine kills Fascists.”
For much of the 1940s, he wrote and sang in New York City. Sadly, by the end of the decade, his life was being taken over by Huntington’s disease. He died in 1967 after a dozen years in hospital.
Guthrie is considered, with longtime friend Pete Seeger, a leader of the protest folk music resurgence. He also wrote memorable ballads and contributed to the history of his time through a book, sketches and essays. But his legacy extends much further.
With Seeger, who sometimes travelled and sang with him, Guthrie influenced generations of songwriters to find their own protest voice. The young Bob Dylan, who visited him in the hospital in the early 1960s, created songs that helped motivate a generation to change society. He was not alone. The more radical Phil Ochs heard Guthrie’s music in university and began writing and performing topical, political songs with his own honesty, wit and heart. Ochs’s eight albums, with songs such as There But for Fortune, Too Many Martyrs and his Guthrie tribute, Bound for Glory, remain compelling responses to injustice.
Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, continues to bring political and social commentary to protest rallies. He tours the world, playing, singing and telling stories. His talking blues humour (think Alice’s Restaurant) is hard to resist, but his talent is diverse, including acting and symphonic music arranging.
Although not as high profile in this age of scattered songs and distracted listeners, protest music has continued to show up in various forms, from John Lennon to Randy Newman to Billy Bragg, from rock to punk to rap. Bruce Springsteen credits Woody Guthrie for keeping him focused on the lives of working people; he appreciates Guthrie’s conviction that “speaking truth to power wasn’t futile.”
Three-time Grammy winner Steve Earle often expresses his fears for his country in the Guthrie tradition. “I never separated music and politics, which kept bringing me back to Woody, over and over and over again,” he says on a Democracy Now! documentary. In Christmas in Washington, Earle sings, “Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now. Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow.”
Washington could use a return of Guthrie, and so could protests like the Occupy movement. In a sense, he was there. Guitarist and activist Tom Morello led Occupy Wall Street protestors in This Land Is Your Land, telling them that if “the great rebel Woody Guthrie” were alive, “he would be headlining this event.”
Pete Seeger was at the New York protests too. Last year, at 92, he marched more than 30 blocks, singing protest songs with the crowd. Just like Woody would have done.
“Guthrie was one of those solar flares who pass through periodically. He threw sparks wherever he went,” says Smithsonian Folkways producer Jeff Place, who, together with author Robert Santelli, has compiled a collection of songs, essays and images called Woody at 100.
The last word goes to Guthrie’s son Arlo: “There are a lot of Woodys,” he told a centennial audience in Austin, Texas. “He really had the ability to distil all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, ‘Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.’ . . . I don’t think we’re actually celebrating Woody — we’re celebrating us. That’s the genius of the man.”
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