Woody Guthrie

 

Woody Guthrie photo 1

 

 

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Woody Guthrie playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbour.” Bob Dylan

[Woody’s music] was composed of ragtime, hillbilly, blues, of all the currents of his time. He made a new idiom that really represented the opening of this new Western frontier of new highways and power lines and Dust Bowl migrants and all that. It had the sound of movement in it. His guitar has the sound of a big truck going down the highway with the riders bouncing around in the front seat. It was a new idiom and really, all America really responded to that. The whole world! We have a dam named after him; he wrote America’s unofficial national anthem, ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ He had the feel of the relationship between language and melody such as nobody else in our time had except maybe his protégé, Bobby Dylan. And I think one of the signs of Dylan’s uniqueness was that when he was just a kid he realized that the greatest verbal artist in the country was named Woody Guthrie.”

… and

Woody had been working on the Carter Family lick for years and years. And he put that together with the harmonica style that he learned from this black man. And with a kind of a frailing technique with his right hand so that his guitar buzzes and rumbles and bounces and jumps and skitters and sings all at the same time. It’s a unique sound that Woody has.” Alan Lomax

He was a short, wiry guy with a mop of curly hair under a cowboy hat, as I first saw him. He’d stand with his guitar slung on his back, spinning out stories like Will Rogers, with a faint. Then he’d hitch his guitar around and sing the longest long outlaw ballad you ever heard, or some Rabelaisian fantasy he’d concocted the day before and might never sing again. His songs are deceptively simple. Only after they have become part of your life do you realize how great they are. Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.” Pete Seeger

*

In any list of the greatest American songwriters of the twentieth century, Woody Guthrie undoubtedly belongs near the very top. The best of his songs are known to millions of people around the world, including to many who probably have no idea that he wrote them. Indeed, his distinctive songwriting style was one of the key influences on the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village from the mid-1950s onwards. It would also be very hard to overstate the effect which both his songs and the persona he created during his career had on the greatest of his disciples, Bob Dylan. Phil Ochs – who probably came closest to being Guthrie’s true successor as a political songwriter – was another who fell under his spell before moving on to find his own voice. Almost all the other singers and songwriters who emerged from that scene also passed through the obligatory stage of Guthrie worship.

These included artists of the stature of Paul Clayton, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Rambling Jack Elliott, Eric Andersen, Joan Baez … Without Guthrie’s inspirational example both as mentor and collaborator, it is also unlikely that artists like Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston would have followed the musical career paths that they did. Woody’s ability to combine the use of the vernacular with a distinctively poetic turn of phrase also helped to transform the nature of American songwriting in the second half of the twentieth century. His lyrics also had a beautiful economy and clarity to them which enabled him to transform a seeming simplicity into high art. Furthermore, his constant celebration of the underdog and those oppressed and victimised by an unfair economic system continues to resonate today. Along with this, the best of Guthrie’s songs manage to combine wit and compassion in a way that very few other songwriters have done.

 

Woody Guthrie photo 6

 

That Dusty Old Dust

Guthrie was born in Okemah in Oklahoma – then a smallish town – on 14th July 1912. At the time of his birth, his father Charley was a successful businessman running a real estate business there. Woody’s early years seem to have been very happy up until his sister Clara’s tragic death in 1919. She burned to death after pouring some ‘coal oil’ on her dress and striking a match against it. The incident followed an argument with her mother, Nora. Later, Clara told people she had only intended to frighten her mother by doing so and had little idea afterwards how badly she had been burned. According to Woody’s autobiography, “Bound For Glory”, that evening before she died Clara told him “Don’t you cry. Promise me that you won’t ever cry. It don’t help, it just makes everybody feel bad.” The tragedy had a devastating effect on the family, especially on Woody’s mother. She had already been showing signs of mental instability even before it happened. This was probably largely due to the effects of her undiagnosed hereditary illness, Huntington’s chorea (an account of its effects can be read here). At that time, it was poorly understood and many of those who suffered from it ended up, like Woody’s mother, being sent to mental asylums. This happened to her after an incident occurred when she probably set fire to her husband as he lay dozing in their home in June 1927. Following it, she was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Oklahoma.

The family’s troubles were also compounded at this time by the failure of several of Charley’s many business enterprises. This litany of successive tragedies and family difficulties meant that Woody’s childhood went from being a relatively secure one to becoming much more unstable. Soon after his mother went to the asylum. the Guthrie children were farmed out to various relatives to be looked after. Woody also took to solitary rambling, which was how he first encountered the black mouth organ player who he names as ‘George’ in his autobiography. Through him, Guthrie picked up the rudiments of blues harmonica.

He had already encountered folk songs and sentimental parlour ballads through his mother (a number of which, like Stepstone and A Picture Of Life’s Other Side, he later recorded). His musical education was further extended when he became friendly with Matt Jennings, a young fiddle player from Pampa, Texas. Woody had moved there in 1929, ostensibly to complete his high school education. While there, however, music proved to be a major distraction. The Jennings’ family had a considerable collection of 78 records and through them Woody first became acquainted with the music of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Both were to be major influences on his own later musical style, with Rodgers providing part of the template for the persona he later adopted. The Carters’ effect on Guthrie was even more profound, his own guitar style being heavily based on the extremely distinctive one adopted by Maybelle Carter from the late 1920s onwards. He also borrowed many of the melodies he used for his songs from their recordings.

From that point on, Woody began to make appearances with local groups. At one point he formed the Corncob Trio, with Jennings and another local guitarist, Cluster Baker. They concentrated on playing country music or ‘hillbilly’ music as it was then known. The group was beginning to have some minor local success when a major dust storm hit the town in April 1935 (this is probably footage of that storm). Although Woody had recently got married to Matt Jennings’ sister, Mary, and they had had a child, the dust storm persuaded him to abandon Pampa and go on the road.

This marked the beginning of a phase where Woody travelled around the country, often hitchhiking, or jumping trains. In his own words, he developed “a great sympathy for folks along our roads that are all down and out.” He had a “crazy notion” that he “wanted to stay down and out for a good long spell” so he could “get to live with every different kind of person” that he could “to learn about all the kind of jobs they do, and to live with them for a long enough time to find it was time to move on.” This type of travelling also served several other purposes. It enabled Guthrie to pick up a wealth of songs from right across America. It also gave him a new understanding of the plight of those migratory workers (including the ubiquitous hoboes) and migrant agricultural labourers whose lives became even harder than they had been previously through the arrival of the Great Depression. He also saw at first hand the difficulties faced by those families who had been forced to abandon their farms because of the ‘dust bowl’ and who were now seeking refuge elsewhere (especially in California). Over time all these experiences fed into Guthrie’s own songwriting and they helped to forge his determination to become ‘the voice’ for this army of what he believed were voiceless people.

Eventually, Woody Guthrie’s wanderings brough him to California where he formed a duo with his cousin, Jack Guthrie. By July 1937, the cousins were doing well enough to secure a radio show on the KFVD radio station in Los Angeles. Eventually Jack Guthrie decided to quit the show and Woody brought in another friend, Maxine Crissman (whose stage name was Lefty Lou) to replace him. Their joint radio-show gave a new impetus to Woody’s songwriting. Among the best of the songs he wrote in this period were the satirical Pennsylvania Lawyer which was based on a story that Woody read a local newspaper – and the sentimental Oklahoma Hills (Woody’s son Arlo can be heard singing it here). Both songs were still in the country vein which characterised Guthrie’s early work. However, other songs he was writing at this time – particularly those about his experiences in the ‘dust bowl’ – were in a far more rough-hewn and folk-like idiom. They included one of Woody’s earliest songs, which leads off the first selection of songs below.

 

 

Dust Bowl / On The Road songs

TrackAlbum / CD
Dusty Old Dust (So Long,
It's Been Good To Know You)
Dust Bowl Ballads
Dust Pneumonia BluesDust Bowl Ballads
I Ain't Got No Home
In This World Anymore
Dust Bowl Ballads
Do Re MiThe Asch Recordings Vol.1
Tom Joad (Part 1)Dust Bowl Ballads
Tom Joad (Part 2)Dust Bowl Ballads

Dusty Old Dust was Woody’s first definite masterpiece and was written shortly after the Pampa dust storm of 1937. It was the first of his songs to show his extraordinary powers of observation. It also demonstrated his ability to draw deft character sketches in only a handful of lines. The brilliant closing verse is a fine example of this:

The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed
And that dusty old dust storm blowed so black
Preacher could not read a word of his text
And he folded his specs, and he took up collection

The keenness of Woody’s dissection of the actions of the preacher in still insisting on taking up the collection, despite the destruction all around him, remains as sharp today as it was on the day the song was written. Like many of his songs, Woody took the melody from another song – in this case the folk ballad Billy The Kid which he later recorded himself.

By contrast, Dust Pneumonia Blues is a harrowing treatment of the effects which the dust storm had on some people’s health. It is also a fine demonstration of Guthrie’s ability to inhabit the lives of the characters he sang about. The song also includes a clear nod to Jimmie Rodgers (“there ought to be some yodelling in this song”).

I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore is one of Woody’s most powerful songs. He wrote it in response to hearing the Carter Family’s I Can’t Feel At Home. He believed such songs encouraged passivity and resignation in the face of adversity. Against such Christian virtues – as the Carters would have seen them – Woody stressed the need for righteous indignation at the injustices he saw around him.

The song also shows Guthrie’s growing anger at those who he held responsible for the economic plight of those he believed had been abandoned by the American political and economic elite:

I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore

And the great concluding lines remain as pointed now as they did then –

The gambling man is rich and the working man is poor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore

Woody’s gift for vivid imagery is also shown in Do Re Mi. The song was designed to serve as a warning to those migrants from the ‘dust bowl’ states who expected to find a ‘garden of eden’ in California. In a sense it could be seen as the flipside to Jimmie Rodgers’ classic California Blues. It cautioned such migrants that they would only face new hardships if they left for the ‘Sunshine State’ without having money. Like many of his songs, it managed to convey a layered message behind a seemingly simple veneer.

In many respects, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, “The Grapes Of Wrath”, echoed many of the themes that Guthrie had raised in his ‘dust bowl’ songs. Its portrayal of a migrant family uprooted from its home in Oklahoma by the dust storms and by the callousness of the banks had a deep resonance for Guthrie. He also identified with Steinbeck’s depiction of the hardships and injustices they suffered once they arrived in California. His first song based on the book, Vigilante Man is one of his very finest and came close to inclusion. In the end I decided on the second, Tom Joad. In it, Woody brilliantly summarises not only the plot but also the spirit of Steinbeck’s classic novel. He also manages to quote almost verbatim Tom Joad’s great speech near the end of the book (best known now perhaps through Henry Fonda’s rendition of it in the classic movie based on the book. Taken as a whole, the song also displays Woody’s easy mastery of the art of the narrative ballad.

Here’s Parts 1 and 2:

 

 

 

Bound for Glory photo

 

Bound For Glory

Woody’s duet partnership with Lefty Lou eventually broke up in June 1938. Soon afterwards, he hit the road again making his way through Virginia and Nevada before returning again to California. This trip further cemented his determination to stand up for the rights of those migrant workers he had encountered on his travels. Many of them were not simply ‘dust bowl’ refuges but rather were families who had lost their homes through being evicted by their landlords or by the larger banks. Their small farms were then transformed into large scale cattle ranches. As Woody put it, “for every farmer who was dusted out or tractored out another ten were chased out by bankers.”

These experiences also helped to shape Guthrie’s political consciousness. While he had always been a man of the left, he now gravitated towards the Communist party. One of the major factors in this shift was his close friendship with the actor, Will Geer (best known to people of my generation for playing Grandpa Walton in The Waltons) and his wife, Herta. Through them, Guthrie was introduced into a circle of writers, artists, political radicals and bohemians. He also began to write weekly columns for the Communist newspaper, People’s World. The columns were largely non-political and were written in Woody’s characteristic mixture of poetic phrases and vernacular speech. He also often used deliberate misspellings and colloquialisms to give his pieces a more direct air. He used the columns to hone his talents as a writer, talents which found their finest expression in his classic autobiographical work, “Bound For Glory” first published in 1943.

Woody’s growing public profile at this time also drew him to the attention of Alan Lomax. Like his father, John, Alan was an assiduous collector of folk songs. For him, meeting Woody (who he first heard singing at a concert at Forrest Theatre in New York in 1940) seemed to be realisation of his belief in the potentialities that existed for music to be a political force in its own right. Unlike his father who was politically conservative – and viewed collecting as a means of preserving America’s cultural heritage – Alan was already active in the Communist party. Indeed, he saw his musical fieldwork as being directly linked to his role as an activist. In this respect, Guthrie appealed to him both as an overtly political artist but also as someone who possessed a vast store of ‘genuine’ folk songs. Like many other Communists at the time, Lomax saw folk music as representing the ‘authentic’ voice of the people. Given this, he came to view Woody as being a representative embodiment of that tradition, a view which became widespread among many people on the left in this period.

Lomax’s enthusiasm for Woody’s music was such that he decided to record him for the Library of Congress archives where he worked. Over the course of three days he taped a series of interviews with Woody, where the latter spoke about his life up to that point. These recorded conversations were interspersed with snippets of Woody’s own songs and of the many folk songs he had picked up during his travels. There has been a debate ever since then as to the extent to which Woody played up to the ‘folksy’ image that Lomax expected from him. Despite this, there are numerous memorable moments throughout the tapes including the extremely moving section where Guthrie talked about the numerous tragedies that had engulfed his family (the section starts at around 8.40 here).

The tapes also included the first recordings of some of Guthrie’s finest songs including So Long It’s Been Good To Know You, Pretty Boy Floyd, I Ain’t Got No Home and Dust Pneumonia Blues. Despite their undoubted excellence, the recordings did not appear in their entirety until 1967. Nevertheless, Alan Lomax’s use of portions of them in his CBS radio show served to further increase Guthrie’s profile.

At this time Guthrie also met the young Pete Seeger, who became a regular musical collaborator. During Woody’s long periods of illness in the 1950s and after his death in 1961, Seeger became his foremost advocate. He also played a vital role in passing his music down to the younger generation of folk musicians. Through Seeger, Guthrie also became involved in the singing group, the Almanac Singers. It featured a rotating group of musicians who, at various times, included Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Hawkes, Sis Cunningham, Arthur Stern and Cisco Houston. The group’s repertoire was largely made up of self-composed songs, usually written from a left-of-centre perspective. They also pioneered ‘topical’ songs as they later became known. The group took a campaigning stance, often appearing at fund-raising concerts for trade union and other worthy causes. In this respect, they served as a template for many of the solo artists and groups who emerged in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

 

Woody Guthrie photo 4

 

Roll On Columbia

In April 1941, Woody was approached by Gunther von Fritsch, a documentary filmmaker, to provide the music for a film he was making on the work of the Bonneville Power Administration (or BPA). Fritsch wanted to give the film a mass appeal and believed that a ‘folk’ soundtrack might help to achieve this. The BPA was then engaged in building a giant dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River in Washington. It was designed to provide hydro-electric power to the area surrounding it. As such, it promised a new era of industrial expansion there, while the irrigation of the land would also enable new settlers to establish small-holdings there.

Given his life-long support for working people, both of these objectives fired Guthrie’s imagination. Over the course of thirty days in May 1941 he turned out 26 songs for use in the movie. Some of these were adaptations of songs he had written previously. Almost all were based on already–existing melodies either from folk tunes or from songs recorded by contemporary musicians like the Carter Family. Surprisingly perhaps – given the haste with which some of them were written – many of these songs are masterpieces which rank among the very best songs that Guthrie ever wrote.

Columbia River/ BPA Songs

TrackAlbum / CD
Roll On ColumbiaColumbia River Songs
Hard Travelin'The Asch Recordings Vol.3
Grand Coulee DamColumbia River Songs
Pastures Of PlentyColumbia River Songs
Talking ColumbiaColumbia River Songs
Ramblin' RoundThe Asch Recordings Vol.1

Guthrie’s songs for the BPA fall into two clear categories. The first are songs that are directly related to the administration’s work and to the building of the dam. Of these, Roll On Columbia is a tribute to the sheer scale of the effort involved in the project. Like many of the songs, it also praises the natural beauty of the area in which the dam was built – Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through/ Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew:

Guthrie’s ability to craft memorable images was at its peak in the best of these songs – These mighty men laboured by day and by night/ Matching their strength ‘gainst the river’s wild flight/ Through rapids and falls they won the hard fight. The melody for the song is taken from Goodnight Irene which had been brought into the mainstream by Guthrie’s friend, Lead Belly. In later life Guthrie edited out some of the more insensitive lines about Indian history which are still included in this recorded version.

For Guthrie, the project’s objectives tied in with the optimistic vision which underlay many of his finest songs. A classic example of this is the superb Grand Coulee Dam (which takes its melody from the classic country song Wabash Cannonball). There are very few songwriters who have matched the level of poetic skill combined with limpid clarity which Guthrie achieves in this song. For me at least, lines like in the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray rank among the very best in the history of American song. Like his greatest protégé, Bob Dylan, Guthrie can also shift registers with startling rapidity. An example is the shift from the poetic diction of the early verses to the much more prosaic but equally effective lines:

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of 33
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me”

The sustained excellence of the lyric – along with the dynamic quality of his performance on it – makes this one of my favourite Guthrie songs. It is a timeless masterpiece which has lost none of its freshness since the day it was written.

By contrast, Talking Columbia is one of Guthrie’s characteristic ‘talking blues’. Although the style is most closely associated with Guthrie, it was actually created by Christopher Allen Bouchillon, a songwriter and comedian from South Carolina. Woody later adopted the style and adapted it for his own purposes. It involved talking rather than singing, albeit in a rhythmic way. The guitar accompaniment was a relatively simple one, involving only three chords. The form also included a final spoken line, which usually was a kind of ironic commentary on the previous verses. In Talking Columbia, Guthrie use this final line to satirise those politicians in Washington who had opposed the building of the dam.

The ebullient quality of the way he sings the song was also a key influence on the young Bob Dylan. Also a verse like this one helped to shape Dylan’s whole approach towards writing lyrics.

Fellers back east done a lot of talking
Some of them baulking and some of them squawking
But with all their figures and all their books
Well, they just didn’t know them raw Chinooks
Salmon! That’s a good river!

Guthrie’s later recording of the song for Asch Records also features the guitar/harmonica combination which Dylan replicated on his early records.

The second category of BPA songs were those which were less directly related to the BPA’s work. Indeed, this group of songs had much in common with the earlier ‘dust bowl’ ones. Like them, songs such as Pastures Of Plenty and Ramblin’ Round dealt with the lives of migrant workers. Both songs also show Guthrie’s ability to compress complex political messages into short deftly worked verses. In ‘Pastures’ for example, Woody manages to summarise the American class system in two razor-sharp lines:

Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

He also depicts the invisibility of some people within American society at the time with the beautifully succinct:

On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

‘Ramblin’ is another fine example of Woody’s sympathies with those whose lives had been transformed for the worse by the Great Depression.

My final choice from the ‘Columbia River’ songs is the classic Hard Travelin’. This is perhaps Woody’s finest tribute to the ‘working man’. The song’s celebration of manual labour also bears out Woody’s own statement about his musical philosophy which he made on his radio show on the WNEW Radio Station in December 1944:

“I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

 

Pretty Boy Floyd photo

 

Political / Outlaw Songs

TrackAlbum / CD
Pretty Boy FloydThe Asch Recordings Vol.4
Jarama ValleyThe Asch Recordings Vol.1
This Land Is Your LandThe Asch Recordings Vol.1

Although for much of his life, Guthrie was a fellow-traveller of the American Communist party, he was far too much of a stubborn individualist to ever be a comfortable fit for it. He also always retained the American fondness for the renegade and the outlaw. Perhaps the classic example of this strain in Woody’s writing is the superb Pretty Boy Floyd. Many subsequent commentators have pointed out since that the real ‘Pretty Boy’ was nothing like the Robin Hood type ‘social bandit’ he is presented as in the song. In a sense, this missed its point as the song is as much about a mythic idea of America as it is about reality. Like so many of Woody’s songs, it is also beautifully constructed. The two concluding verses are among Woody’s most famous ones and they make a sharp political point in a superbly condensed way:

Yes, 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

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home

One of the key motifs in Woody’s work from the mid-1930s onwards was his intense dislike of Fascism. This was reflected in the slogan – ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ – that he attached to his guitar in the early 1940s. One of the decisive moments in shaping Guthrie’s later attitudes towards the Axis powers was the Spanish Civil War. Like many people on the left, he was profoundly opposed to what he saw as the betrayal of the Spanish Republic by many of the Western powers. He was also a keen supporter of those volunteers who went from across the world to fight in its defence in the International Brigades. Jarama Valley, his brilliant adaptation of Red River Valley, is his tribute to those American volunteers who served in the Lincoln Brigades.

This Land Is Your Land is one of Woody’s clear masterpieces. It was written in response to hearing Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. In his biographer Joe Klein’s words, Woody saw it as “just another of those songs that told people not to worry – God was in the driver’s seat”. He set out to challenge this cosy picture of America and its avoidance of any acknowledgement of the class divisions and conflicts that existed within it. He originally called the song God Blessed America but later changed it to This Land Is Your Land. What gives the song its lasting vitality is the tension between Woody’s clear patriotism and love of the natural beauty of the United States (the sparkling sands of her diamond desertsthat golden valleythe wheat fields waving) and his anger at the political injustices that still existed there.

Over time, however, the two most pointed verses in the song were gradually excised from it. This was especially the case when it was sung in schools. In a sense, this censorship allowed the song to become the ‘unofficial anthem’ of the USA – as it has been described. It also removed the opportunity for political controversy which the other two verses might have provoked.

These run:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
The sign was painted, said: Private Property
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

In my opinion, only a handful of people – Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Bob Dylan – have come close to displaying the mastery of American vernacular writing that Woody Guthrie shows in this song. Indeed, if he had only written this one song, he would still be one of the very greatest songwriters America has ever produced.

 

Woody Guthrie photo 5

 

This Machine Kills Fascists

At the end of Pastures Of Plenty, Woody had included a surprisingly patriotic affirmation that:

My land I’ll defend with my life if it be
‘Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

At the beginning of the Second World War, however, he followed the orthodox Communist Party line which after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 was anti-militaristic and in favour of a negotiated peace. His attitude towards the war shifted in June 1941 after the German army invaded the USSR. Eventually, he even served in the merchant marine along with his friends Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi. He also wrote a number of fine war-time songs including the classic The Sinking Of The Reuben James and the superbly subtle Ship In The Sky.

In the years after the war, Woody was also embraced by the left-wing bohemian intellectual set in New York. He also remarried (to the dancer Marjorie Mazia) and wrote a number of classic children’s songs for their children. The Guthrie family’s long list of tragedies continued in 1947, when their young daughter Cathy died after a fire in their apartment. Arguably, Guthrie never fully recovered from this fresh blow.

From the late 1940s onwards, his behaviour became increasingly erratic and unpredictable. It is highly likely that some of this volatility resulted from the hereditary illness from which he suffered.

Given the relatively poor knowledge of Huntington’s at the time, however, it was not until 1952 that he was diagnosed with the disease. As we saw earlier, it was a progressive neurogenerative disease for which there was no cure. In a sad irony, Guthrie’s declining health coincided with the discovery of his music by young musicians right across America. In the event, Guthrie lingered on far longer than expected, only finally succumbing to the disease in October 1967.

During his drawn-out illness, many young musicians made the journey to visit him in the various hospitals in which he was held. These pilgrims included artists of the calibre of Rambling Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Their generation helped to carry on both Woody’s political message and to spread his music right across the world.

Will conclude this piece with two fine tributes written by his two greatest disciples:

 

 

Bonus Tracks

Ranger’s Command (The Asch Recordings: Vol.4)
Hobo’s Lullaby (The Asch Recordings: Vol.1)

These are my two favourite vocal performances by Woody. Apparently, he derived Ranger’s Command from an earlier ballad known as The Death Of A Maiden Fair. Although Woody was not technically, perhaps, the finest singer in the world, very few people could match his ability to tell a story in a song. In my opinion this is one of the very finest examples of that skill. He can be seen singing it live here (one of the very few pieces of performance footage that exists for Woody) –

By contrast, what has always struck me most about the beautiful Hobo’s Lullaby is the humanity in Woody’s voice. This ranks among my very favourite recordings ever. Although it is a cover of a song written by Goebel Reeves, Woody’s version is the definitive one for me.

 

 

Footnotes

For those wanting to find out more about his career, the biographies by Joe Klein (“Woody Guthrie: A Life”) and by Ed Cray (“Ramblin Man: The Life And Times Of Woody Guthrie”) are both highly recommended. Woody’s brilliant autobiography, “Bound For Glory”, is also well worth reading although it should be borne in mind that it was not meant as a completely factual account of his life.

There are also two excellent recent books which explore different parts of his career: Greg Vandy’s “26 Songs In 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs And The Planned Promised Land In The Pacific Northwest” deals with his time working for the BPA and Robert Santelli’s “This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie And The Journey Of An American Folk Song” which explores where that great song fits within Guthrie’s own career and assesses its long-term legacy.

The Asch Recordings are probably the most well-known of Woody Guthrie’s recordings conducted over a series of days in New York City 1944 and 1945 by Moses Asch. Reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in the 90s as follows and available in a 4CD set:
The Asch Recordings Vol.1: This Land Is Your Land
The Asch Recordings Vol.2: Muleskinner Blues
The Asch Recordings Vol.3: Hard Travelin’
The Asch Recordings Vol.4: Buffalo Skinners

In 1992, Woody’s daughter Nora contacted Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed but unrecorded Guthrie lyrics. Bragg approached the band Wilco and asked them to participate in the project and the eventual recordings were released in 1998 and 2000 and are now available as Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.

 

10 best Guthrie recordings of folk/country songs

Gypsy Davy (The Asch Recordings Vol.1)
Jesse James (The Asch Recordings Vol.1)
Wreck Of The Old 97 (The Asch Recordings Vol.2)
Sowing On The Mountains (The Asch Recordings Vol.2)
Johnny Hart [‘John Hardy’] (The Asch Recordings Vol.2)
Muleskinner Blues (The Asch Recordings Vol.2)
Red River Valley (The Asch Recordings Vol.4)
Stewball [with Leadbelly and Cisco] (The Asch Recordings Vol.4)
Get Along Little Dogies (The Asch Recordings Vol.4)
I Ride An Old Paint (The Asch Recordings Vol.4)

 

15 best Woody Guthrie covers

Grand Coulee Dam (Bob Dylan/The Band) – Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts
Oklahoma Hills (Arlo Guthrie) – Running Down The Road
Hobo’s Lullaby (Pete Seeger) – Rainbow Race
Deportees (Joan Baez) – Blessed Are …
Vigilante Man (Ry Cooder) – Into The Purple Valley
Ludlow Massacre (Christy Moore) – Prosperous
Sacco And Vanzetti (Christy Moore) – Christy Moore
Deportees (Gene Clark, Carla Olson) – So Rebellious A Lover
Pretty Boy Floyd (Bob Dylan) – Folkways: A Vision Shared
Do Re Mi (John Mellencamp) – Folkways: A Vision Shared
Philadelphia Lawyer (Willie Nelson) – Folkways: A Vision Shared
Vigilante Man (Bruce Springsteen) – Folkways: A Vision Shared
Hobo’s Lullaby (Emmylou Harris) – Folkways: A Vision Shared
Ranger’s Command (Rambling Jack Elliott) – The Long Ride
1913 Massacre (Joel Rafael) – Woodeye: Songs Of Woody Guthrie

 

Woody Guthrie photo 2

Woody with Cisco Houston

 

Woody Guthrie photo 3

Woody with Lead Belly

 

Woody Guthrie photo 7

The Almanac Singers (1942): Woody Guthrie (left), Pete Seeger (centre)

 

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

 

Woody Guthrie Official Website

The Woody Guthrie Center (home to the Woody Guthrie Archives)

The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways)

Woody Guthrie Discography

Books by or about Woody Guthrie

Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the BPA

The Official Arlo Guthrie Website

Woody Guthrie biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Eric Andersen, Carter Family, Paul Clayton, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly, Phil Ochs, Jimmie Rodgers, Pete Seeger

TopperPost #920

10 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Dec 4, 2020

    No question that Woody is a top 5 or even 3 American composer. One thing that is not commonly known is that he wrote children’s songs. Growing up, I remember singing ‘take you driving in my car’ in preschool and seeing it sung on Play School. It was only as an adult I found out it was Woody who wrote it. Of course, Woody wasn’t too concerned with copyright, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot of credit given.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Dec 4, 2020

    You’ve done Woody proud, Andrew.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Dec 5, 2020

    David & Dave, thanks for the good words.
    David – Although they are not my favourite part of Woody’s repertoire, his children’s songs are hugely popular in US. This was largely due, I think, to Pete Seeger’s championing of them.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Dec 6, 2020

    I scrolled right away to Woody and politics! I am confused after watching the campaigns of Mr Trump and Mr Biden. Which one was the candidate for a working man? Who is left? Who is right? These questions go “around and around” (to promote another web site) in my head. What a great song Woody would have written of this election today.
    ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ is here. Naturally. It ends so strongly. I believe Bob Dylan tried to write as strongly in ‘John Wesley Harding’ but gave up after three verses.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Dec 6, 2020

    Thanks for your comment Ilkka. Funnily enough there is a connection between Woody and Trump which is discussed here. And, yes, “Pretty Boy Floyd’ is one of Woody’s finest lyrics.

  6. Colin Duncan
    Dec 28, 2020

    Thanks, Andrew, a very interesting and informative piece of work. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the people you mention, whom Woody influenced, and when I saw Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he talked about Woody. I think the Gene Clark and Carla Olsen cover of Deportees is great. You’ll probably know this, but if not it is worth a look – Woody spent a little time in Glasgow during the war after his ship was hit. Some say he came to Glasgow to check out his roots, others that it was a safer trip home than from Liverpool. About twenty years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the pub he frequented when he stayed here. He bought a book of Burns’ songs in Glasgow and in 1947 wrote a letter to Burns from Coney. Worth a read. Thanks again, Andrew.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Dec 29, 2020

    Thanks for the kind words Colin. Didn’t know about Woody’s time in Scotland – will have to look into it further. Good to know that both Woody and Phil Ochs had some Scottish connections.

  8. Colin Duncan
    Jan 2, 2021

    The other Scottish connection is related to influences on Dylan. Back in the seventies, I used to read that Woody Guthrie, Scottish ballads and, from time to time, the poet and folk song collector Hamish Henderson were major influences on Dylan. In 1961, Dylan used to share a flat with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the late Jean Redpath, who many still argue is the greatest singer of Burns’ songs. I found it amazing that Jean had once shared a flat with Dylan and once tried to find out if she had been influenced by Woody, but got nowhere. Thanks again, Andrew.

  9. Andrew Shields
    Jan 5, 2021

    Thought this link would interest you Colin.

  10. Colin Duncan
    Jan 5, 2021

    Very interesting, Andrew. Thank you very much. The links will keep me going a wee while. In addition to this excellent essay, I was thinking about your Toppermost on Rod Paterson. If you have any time, check out Dick Gaughan singing 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily. Thanks again, Andrew. (That’s a great Scottish name for an Irishman).

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