Woody Guthrie

Posted April 3rd, 2012

Woody Guthrie

by Steve Earle

When Bob Dylan took the stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, all leather and Ray-Bans and Beatle boots, and declared emphatically and (heaven forbid) electrically that he wasn’t “gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” the folk music faithful took it personally. They had come to see the scruffy kid with the dusty suede jacket pictured on the covers of Bob Dylan and Freewheelin’. They wanted to hear topical songs. Political songs. Songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Masters of War and Blowin’ in the Wind.  They wanted the heir apparent. The Dauphin. They wanted Woody Guthrie.

Dylan wasn’t goin’ for it. He struggled through two electric numbers before he and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band retreated backstage. After a few minutes he returned alone and, armed with only an acoustic guitar, delivered a scathing It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and walked.

Woody Guthrie himself had long since been silenced by Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary brain-wasting disease, leaving a hole in the heart of American music that would never be filled, and Dylan may have been the only person present at Newport that day with sense enough to know it.

One does not become Woody Guthrie by design. Dylan knew that because he had tried. We all tried, every one of us who came along later and tried to follow in his footsteps only to find that no amount of study, no apprenticeship, no regimen of self-induced hard travelin’ will ever produce another Woody. Not in a million years.

Woody Guthrie was what folks who don’t believe in anything would call an anomaly. Admittedly, the intersection of space and time at the corner of July 14, 1912, and Okemah, Oklahoma, was a long shot to produce anything like a national treasure.

Woody was born in one of the most desolate places in America, just in time to come of age in the worst period in our history. Then again, the Dust Bowl itself was no accident either.

After the Civil War, the United States government and the railroads, mistakenly believing that the Great Plains would make swell farmland, killed off all the buffalo, effectively neutralizing the indigenous population, and opened up vast expanses of prairie to homesteading. Problem was that the head-high buffalo grass that thrived in the thin topsoil had slowly adapted to its deceptively hostile environment over several thousand years. It took less than seventy years for nonnative water- and mineral-greedy crops to wring every last nutrient from the traumatized earth, creating a vast man-made desert and setting in motion a mass migration of folks from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma out west to California, where they hoped against hope for a better life.

Most found only bigotry and exploitation at the hands of wealthy fruit and vegetable growers. Woody found an audience. He sang in the migrant camps and on the picket lines up and down the lush interior valleys. A few well-meaning outsiders were sympathetic to the plight of the migrants, but they were college boys who used a lot of big words like “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” and unintentionally made the Okies feel small. But Woody was one of their own. He spoke their language and he sang their songs, and every once in a while he’d slip in one of those big words in between a tall tale and an outlaw ballad. As he became more outraged he became more radical, but his songs and his patter always maintained a sense of humor and hope. He said, “I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.”

Woody arrived at his social conscience organically, over a period of years. Socialism made a lot of sense in the Great Depression. Capitalism had, after all, essentially collapsed and wasn’t showing any significant signs of reviving in Pampa, Texas, where Woody spent his late adolescence. The ultimate hillbilly autodidact, he divided his time between teaching himself to play several musical instruments only tolerably well and frequent marathon sessions in the public library, where he clandestinely educated himself. He followed his own haphazard curriculum, one book leading him to another in an endless scavenger hunt for answers that invariably posed even deeper questions. An acute interest in psychology segued into medieval mysticism and from there he stumbled into Eastern philosophy and spiritualism. He went through a poetry period, a Shakespeare period, even a law book period. When, a few years later, he began to travel around the Southwest by thumb and freight train, his mind was wide open when he encountered crusty old radicals who handed out copies of The Little Red Song Book and preached the Gospel of Union. It was only natural that when he began to make up his own songs, he drew on the despair and pain he had witnessed all his life and the lofty ideas that ricocheted around in his head for inspiration. He became the living embodiment of everything a people’s revolution is supposed to be about: that working people have dignity, intelligence and value above and beyond the market’s demand for their labor.

Not that Woody was a rank-and-file worker. In fact, he managed to avoid manual labor more strenuous than sign-painting his entire life. He was, however, born into the working class and managed to distinguish himself not by “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” and toeing the line but rather by trusting his own talent and vision.

He was no angel, either. Those closest to him sometimes found him hard to love. His family (he had two) sometimes suffered for his convictions, as he constantly sabotaged himself, especially when things were going well financially. In the long run, his political integrity was unassailable, because money and its trappings made him genuinely nervous.

By the time the 1950s blacklists got around to folk singers, Woody wasn’t affected, as he was already succumbing to the disease that had institutionalized and eventually killed his mother, and he was slowly slipping away. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott got there in time to hang out with him out in Coney Island. By the early 1960s Woody was hospital-bound, but he spent weekends at the home of longtime fan Bob Gleason. Bob Dylan and other up-and-coming folkies made the pilgrimage and sang for him there. When Woody finally died, in the fall of 1967, he was eulogized in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. He left behind an army of imitators and a catalogue of songs that people will be dusting off and singing for as long as they make guitars.

For me personally, Woody is my hero of heroes and the only person on earth that I will go to my grave regretting that I never met. When I invoked his name in Christmas in Washington, I meant it. Clinton was being re-elected in a landslide and I had voted for him and I wasn’t sure why and I needed something to hang on to, someone to say something. I needed, well…a hero.

Does all this mean that the world would be a different place if Woody had dodged the genetic bullet and lived? You bet your progressive ass! Just imagine what we missed! Woody publishing his second and third books! Woody on the picket lines with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers singin’ Deportee! I could go on forever. I have imagined hundreds of similar scenarios, but then at some point it always dawns on me how selfish I am.

Let him go. He did his bit. Besides, as much as we need him right now, I wouldn’t wish this post-9/11 world on Woody. He hated Irving Berlin’s God Bless America more than any other song in the world. He believed that it was jingoistic and exclusive, so he wrote a song of his own. It goes:

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
To the New York island
From the redwood forest
To the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Published originally in The Nation.Gazette Fair Use Statement