Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People
"I ain't a writer," Woody Guthrie once wrote, "I want that understood. I'm just a little one-cylinder guitar picker." Of course, that humble sentiment was part of his public persona--the howdy-doo Woody Guthrie, the ramblin' everyman, the down-home folk singer, poet of the people. The truth, however, is that Guthrie wrote an incredible amount of material: songs, essays, poems, stories, diaries, and letters. In total, an estimated 750,000 words were left unpublished when Guthrie died in 1967.
Guthrie's voice endures for a perhaps particularly American reason: he celebrates the little guy, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Guthrie spoke out against fascism, sung out to sufferers of the Depression, the Dust Bowl era, and the second World War. He advocated the unions and scorned the corporations. But the formulas for writing the "people’s songs" didn’t rest in social justice alone; Guthrie’s wit, humor and home-spun vernacular attracted the American audience and avoided pretension.
Guthrie was born in 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, which he would later describe as the "singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest" town in Oklahoma. His family experienced both the benefits of the booming oil industry, and the devastating effects of the Great Dust Storm in 1935. After the death of his sister Clara and the institutionalization of his ailing mother, Guthrie moved with his first wife, Mary Jennings, to Texas, where he took his first shot at a music career, forming The Corn Cob Trio with Matt Jennings and Cluster Baker. That road proved extremely difficult during the Dust Bowl years, so following the westward trend, Guthrie decided to hitchhike to California in search of opportunities.
It was in California that Guthrie, fueled by the disdain of Californians to the influx of "Okie" outsiders, wrote and recorded the first of his songs to bring him and his singing partner, Lefty Lou (Maxine Crissman) wide public attention. His Dust Bowl Ballads, such as "I Ain’t Got No Home," "Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad," "Tom Joad," and "Hard Travelin’," were broadcast over a radio station in Los Angeles, as well as one just across the border in Mexico, providing Guthrie with a forum to criticize corrupt California politicians and businessmen.
His success led him next to New York City, where he enjoyed the respect of like-minded musicians, artists and leftist intellectuals. While Guthrie continued writing and performing prolifically, these people became his friends and collaborators in protest. In 1940, Guthrie lent his voice in song and in conversation with Alan Lomax to a special recording for the Library of Congress.
Ever restless, Guthrie didn’t stay in New York. Prepared to return to his origins in the South, he instead received an invitation from the producers of a documentary film project to write songs for the film. In protest of the Grand Coulee Dam in Oregon, he offered a collection of songs called the Columbia River Songs, which were highly praised. From there he went on to write other classics, like "Pretty Boy Floyd," and the singular song considered to be his masterpiece, "This Land is Your Land."
By the 1950s, when Guthrie began to suffer from Huntington’s chorea, a disease that would claim his life in 1967, his music was already influencing the next generation of American folk songwriters, most especially Bob Dylan, who made a pilgrimage to New York to meet Guthrie. One of the two original songs included on Dylan's first album was a tribute to Guthrie, called "Song for Woody," which borrowed Guthrie's chord progressioin from "1913 Massacre."
Guthrie kept writing long after he became too ill to sing. Recently, scholars and musicians have been pouring over the wealth of unpublished poems, stories, and songs that Guthrie left behind. In 1990, Dave Marsh and Harold Leventhal collected many of these documents in Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait. Then in 1998, having been given access to Guthrie's unpublished lyrics, British musician Billy Bragg, along with the alt-country band Wilco, set many of them to music. The collaboration resulted in the two-volume album Mermaid Avenue, one of the best-reviewed records of 1998. The album opens with "Walt Whitman's Niece":
A girl took down a book of poems,
not to say which book of poems,
And as she read, I laid my head,
and I can't tell which head
Down in her lap, and I can mention which lap
Bragg says that what we know of Guthrie's songs reflects only a fraction of what the singer actually wrote, and to think of him as a hobo guitar-picker sells him short. In Guthrie's unpublished notes, the singer wrote visions of his Oklahoma childhood, tales of sea voyages, and fantasies of making love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano.
"Woody Guthrie was the first alternative musician," Bragg wrote in the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue. "While Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley were busy peddling escapism for the masses, Woody was out there writing songs from a different point of view with a lyrical poetry that captured the awesome majesty of America's scenery and the dry as dust humor of its working folks."