July 14th, 2012 marked what would've been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. Although he passed away in 1967, his legacy is as vibrant as ever.
Like many of my generation, I was introduced to Woody in my elementary school music class. Along with songs such as "And the Green Grass Grew All Around" and "Rainbow Connection," "This Land Is Your Land" was a staple of our teacher's singing selections. Of course we sang the sanitized version which excluded the political verses. I don't remember knowing who actually wrote it but it just went into the mental category of "Songs Everyone Knows."
Fast-forward to college where my roommates and I found ourselves on the requisite liberal arts school Bob Dylan binge and I heard him sing, "Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song." And I wondered, "Who is this Woody Guthrie guy that always comes up when people talk about Dylan?" My roommate handed me a copy of the Asch Recordings and I was hooked. It unlocked a whole world of music for me, not just Woody's, but of both artists who he emulated like Lead Belly and artists he influenced like Jeff Tweedy (who collaborated with Billy Bragg on the great Mermaid Avenue albums).
He wasn't an amazing guitar player or a complicated songwriter, but Woody's power was rooted in the ability he had to tell stories of the people who found themselves voiceless in their present conditions. The stark truths he presents cut through any simplified politics or grand theories and grounds the listener into the harsh realities of a broken world. He doesn't leave you there though. His songs include a call to action for both those with and without power.
While he knew that music could convey a message, he knew that it was also for enjoyment. He wrote an incredible amount of fun and playful songs, mostly for children, that exemplify a lot of delight in the everyday things such as cars, swimming, and taking baths.
It's easy to start idolizing someone with this much talent but even a cursory reading of the biographies written about Woody show that he wasn't a saint and never claimed to be. His track record with marriage and family was pretty poor and he wrestled with his own failings throughout his life. Like the people he wrote about, he had his troubles, but realized that a better life was possible and tried to bring others to the same conclusion.
"The world is filled with people who are no longer needed. And who try to make slaves of all of us. And they have their music and we have ours. Theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious nightmare. And without their music and ideological miscarriages to compare our songs of freedom to, we'd not have any opposite to compare music with --- and like the drifting wind, hitting against no obstacle, we'd never know its speed, its power." - Woody Guthrie
Whether you're beginning to explore Woody's amazing works or are digging deeper into his history, the library has some great resources (including streaming access to his Folkways recording at our American Song database).
- Bound For Glory - Woody's autobiography
- Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein
- Woody Guthrie, American Radical by Will Kaufman
- Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray
- Woody Guthrie: Art Works
- Woody Sez - A compilation of Woody's regular newspaper columns
Thanks, this was great. He really is still alive in the music of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweady and others.
Ramblin' Jack is another important link in the long chain of American music that I've yet to spend much time with. Based on the enthusiam here, I think it's time to give him a proper listen. Thanks!