Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old this summer, had he somehow survived a debilitating bout with Huntington’s disease that hit him hard in the 1950s and left him dead at the age of 55 in 1967. To many, he is simply known as “that folk singer who penned ‘This Land Is Your Land,’” our poor man’s national anthem, some 70 years ago.
But his impact is much wider than that. Ruggedly nonconformist, Woody pioneered an unvarnished, political approach to music-making, which has lingered on, half hidden, in our electronic age. He was a complicated figure—an aggressive self-promoter who openly complained about the commercialization of music. He cared deeply about the common man, but sometimes less so about the people in his immediate vicinity: He was prone to womanizing, outbursts of anger, hypocrisy and recklessness. Even his political standpoint is difficult to nail down at times.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie is a contradictory figure—but he is also an excellent guide into the connections we might make between our lives today amid the economic tumult and the not-so-distant past. Here’s what I have come to learn about this American icon.
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I first encountered Woody as a research topic in a dusty farmworker camp in Weedpatch, Calif. I was a journalist researching a story about the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, that epic journey from drought-ridden Oklahoma and Texas to the promised land of California. I ended up writing a book, Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (University of California Press, 2007), which examined Woody Guthrie as a “hillbilly” artist on Los Angeles radio in the late 1930s.
During research for that book, I found recordings that the media are now touting as “Woody Guthrie’s oldest known recordings”: two lacquer-coated aluminum Presto discs containing four tracks that most likely date to 1939. And since landing at Henderson’s Nevada State College as a history professor in 2006, I have been involved in a project that culminated this summer in the release of the Smithsonian Folkways’ Woody at 100: A Centennial Celebration, a mammoth book and CD set that includes those four recordings and an essay about my find.
In all, my 15 years of dealing with and thinking about Woody’s ghost has been well spent.
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Woody was, as historian Charles McGovern has argued, the original Do It Yourself advocate. In the late 1970s, punk musicians gloried in Do It Yourself culture. Punks hated the idea that one had to be a virtuoso musician to be worthy. They created their own music, sometimes with the only three chords they knew, and finished it off with blunt lyrical statements about their lot in life. And they created their own fashion, using safety pins to mend threadbare shirts and turning them into a statement about how society infantilized teens and young adults.
Woody, however, was Doing It Himself in the 1930s. He was an advocate for ordinary people creating their own culture and singing their own songs. He followed an ancient tradition of rewriting and reconfiguring music and lyrics—of taking old tunes and matching them with new words. He matched the words to his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” itself a protest against Kate Smith’s polished recording of the reverent “God Bless America,” with a tune from the Carter Family, an early commercial country music group. The Carters, in turn, had borrowed that tune from an old Baptist hymn. “I Ain’t Got No Home”—one of the songs I found among his Los Angeles recordings—was similarly set to the tune of a religious number, “This World Is Not My Own,” which promised redemption in the world beyond. Woody’s version (“Rich man took my home and drove me from my door”) preferred to document the bleakness of the here and now. (Los Angeles funk rocker Beck, by the way, has recently recorded one of the best contemporary versions of this song.) Woody also painted and doodled and sketched covers for his own DIY song-books, which he sold on the corner for a quarter. He held a sharp disdain for copyright and worried that the “phonograft” record industry and the charting of songs on the hit parade were squeezing out live music and leaving musicians on the unemployment line. He probably would have sided with plucky hip-hop and electronic dance musicians in recent legal debates about sampling, but he also would have been concerned that the music machine was churning out bland pre-fabricated pop stars.
Woody loved those who stepped out on a limb. His closest kin today would probably be the underappreciated country and rock singer/songwriter James McMurtry, whose “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” is really the “I Ain’t Got No Home” of our own Great Recession. But he would have been equally a fan of iconoclasts across a large swath of genres: Merle Haggard, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Mos Def; Manu Chao, the Tune-Yards and Gang Gang Dance; Leonard Cohen and Ani DiFranco. He was not afraid to write about his own personal demons. I can even imagine him smiling knowingly at the public airing of depression and Attention Deficit Disorder in the recent Awolnation hit “Sail.”
Woody fiercely believed that political topics were fair game. He adorned his guitar with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” and wrote scathing songs about unemployment, homelessness and home foreclosures. He was the person to whom the rock musicians of the 1960s and the Folk Revival—Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Gram Parsons—looked to for inspiration in their own rebellion. But Woody would have been at home among those squatting in their own homes in Las Vegas during the last few years, and among at least some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
His politics were ardently left wing. He supported labor unions and the liberal facets of the New Deal and performed for, and befriended, communists. Critics have claimed he was a Stalinist who rarely budged from the official party line, but his views were more complicated than that.
Modern-day conservatives would probably find much to celebrate in Woody’s patriotic songwriting (he exalted in it) and in his concern about the plight of Jews in Israel. His beliefs about the music industry were also strangely in line with the fiercely conservative Vanderbilt Agrarians, a group of Southern intellectuals who in many ways laid the groundwork for modern conservatism’s criticisms of Hollywood and popular culture. In fact, Woody’s worry that traditional performance was being steamrolled by recordings echoed those of the ultra-conservative Agrarian professor and poet Donald Davidson, who argued that true regional performers “must let go, must set no copyright claim” and must instead let their works be carried on by “whoever would like it, for what it is worth.”
The early Presto discs that I found, however, suggest that though Woody disdained commercialism, he wasn’t above it himself. We might speculate that Woody even cut these Presto recordings as a way of marketing himself to popular national country music radio shows such as Chicago’s National Barn Dance. On later recordings, he would emulate commercial hillbilly music stalwarts such as Vernon Dalhart and Jimmie Rodgers, but for “Big City Ways,” one of the Presto tracks, he borrowed a tune from the radio hillbilly star duo the Delmore Brothers.
These four tracks also speak a great deal about Los Angeles history. But for Nevadans, they show his keen attention to geographical spaces, Guthrie’s attempts to capture the ins and outs of a city. Much of his work was critical of the boosterism that often goes on in Western cities. One of the Presto recordings, “Big City Ways,” argues that the big city was corrupting the innocence of a rural family, while another, “Skid Row,” talks about homelessness and how “my senator sent me down on the skid row.” We see here someone who might have found a certain connection with the Las Vegas of today.