Woody Guthrie at 100: American struggles and dreams
By Joe Heim,
It’s not widely known that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” — a song written in 1940 that would later become a grade-school classic — was written as a rejoinder to another American standard, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song that gained currency in pre-World War II America.
Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this week, felt Berlin’s song was overly patriotic and didn’t address the struggles and dreams of the ordinary Americans he knew, says Jeff Place, archivist for the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. And so Guthrie penned “This Land” (originally titled “God Blessed America”) as a retort that emphasized the country’s shared resources and egalitarianism, and included verses such as this that would cheer populists (not to mention today’s Occupy movement):
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Although “This Land is Your Land,” is Guthrie’s most famous song, he is also responsible for thousands of others, an autobiography (“Bound for Glory”) and scads of paintings and drawings. The entire scope of his relatively brief career — Guthrie’s prime period of productivity lasted little more than a decade — is given a loving and thoughtful overview in the just-released, “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection,” a handsome book produced by Smithsonian Folkways and curated by Place and Robert Santelli.
In addition to many previously unseen photographs of Guthrie and images of his typed and often revised lyrics, the collection contains three CDs with dozens of Guthrie’s recordings, including six original songs that have not been heard before and 21 previously unreleased performances. It’s a sumptuous summation of a career that has affected and shaped American music for generations. And it is one of the highlights of a year-long celebration of Guthrie that will feature tribute concerts all over the world, including one by his granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, in Washington on Tuesday, and a birthday concert on Saturday by the U-Liners and Magpie at the Takoma Park Civic Auditorium. A high-profile Guthrie tribute will take place at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 14.
“All different genres of music encounter those who are solar flares,” Place says. “People who changed the music entirely — Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix. They are there for a brief period of time and change things entirely. Everything is different after them, and Woody Guthrie is like that. Topical songwriting is based on his model.”
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. He died in 1967 at 55, felled by Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that wore him down physically and mentally in the last third of his life. But in the prime of his career, from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, Guthrie produced songs that would define the era, songs that spoke to the hardships of Depression-era America, Dust Bowl refugees, migrant workers, labor strife, racial inequity, economic justice and war.
With songs like “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Hard Travelin’,” “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore),” “Deportees,” and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie developed a reputation as a truth teller and a fighter for the little guy. He earned plaudits and acclaim for his genuineness, clever songwriting and ability to distill political and personal sentiment into catchy and simple chorus-verse-chorus ditties. (He famously claimed that anyone who played more than three chords was “just showing off.”) But his political outspokenness also earned Guthrie an FBI file and assertions that he belonged to the Communist Party.
Remarkably, for someone who wrote a song that’s considered an American anthem, Guthrie, because of his debilitating illness, was not aware of how well-known he had become. “He never really had a chance to appreciate being famous because he was too far gone,” Place says. “His songs got known better much later. They were barely recorded before the late 1950s.”
But Guthrie’s long-term influence as a singer-songwriter can’t be overstated. “For the folk revivalists,” Place says, “Woody was the great folksinger, the authentic voice. He wasn’t the first to do this, but [with] the concept of the singer-songwriter, he was the really big one. Nowadays, most people who play acoustic guitar are going to play their own songs. But before Guthrie,hardly anyone was doing that.”
His music has been championed over the decades, from Pete Seeger and the early New York folk scene to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Willie Nelson, Wilco, Billy Bragg, Jay Farrar, Ani DiFranco, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and many more. And of course that doesn’t factor in every singer who learned and was influenced by “This Land Is Your Land” as a kid. That list would fill a phone book. (Younger readers will need to Google “phone book.”)
As a freshman at Brown in 1973, Doug Mishkin learned that the citizens of Guthrie’s Oklahoma home town were engaged in a heated debate as to whether they should honor their native son. That inspired Mishkin, now a Washington lawyer who lives in Bethesda, to write a song about Guthrie and his influence.
The song, “We Are All Woody’s Children,” found its way to a New York radio station, WQXR, and Robert Sherman, who hosted the Woody’s Children radio program, added it to the playlist. Mishkin returned to sing the song on anniversary editions of the show. Earlier this year, he rounded up some of his folkie friends — including Peter Yarrow, Tom Chapin, Christine Lavin, Tom Paxton, Catie Curtis and others — to celebrate the Guthrie centennial by producing a revised version of the song and a video that Mishkin posted late last month on the Web site Woodyschildren.com.
Mishkin says he came to know about Guthrie through Pete Seeger. “Seeger said that he and Guthrie had this vision of putting guitars and banjos in the hands of ordinary people,” Mishkin says. “They wanted to get everybody singing and not have their music choices limited by commercial radio stations. And what is stunning is the extent to which they succeeded. They accomplished something quite profound.”
Now Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo Guthrie, is championing her grandfather’s work. She and her husband, Johnny Irion, have been touring singing only Woody’s compositions, including a passel of his delightfully silly childrens songs. (They’ll play at Hill Country Barbecue in the District on Tuesday.)
“It feels like a family reunion and it’s been really awesome,” says Sarah Lee. “It’s really just getting back to our roots.”
She says she has learned more about Woody by working with the archives and reading his notebook entries and postcards he wrote to her grandmother. The process has helped humanize the legend. “I’ve definitely started thinking of him more as a grandfather,” she says.
Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter also thinks that America needs to hear his songs now more than ever. “His spirit is really starting to grow within our culture. This [anniversary year] has allowed me to get in touch with what he means to this country and especially what we all need now, which is to get up and use our voices. To hear his words right now is really potent.”
Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 this Saturday, and his centennial year is being celebrated worldwide with concerts, panels, theater productions and CD releases. A full listing of Woody Guthrie centennial events can be found at www.woody100.com
Live performances in the D.C. region
Tuesday: Woody Guthrie Centennial Birthday Celebration featuring Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. 8:30 p.m. $15- 20. Hill Country Barbeque. 410 Seventh St. NW.
Saturday: Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday Tribute Concert featuring the
U-Liners and Magpie. 7:30 p.m. $15 Takoma Park Civic Auditorium. 7500 Maple Ave., Takoma Park.
Oct. 13: Woody Guthrie Program panel discussion at the Library of Congress.
Oct. 14: This Land is Your Land Tribute concert at the Kennedy Center.
Nov. 8 to Dec. 2: Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie. Theater J
/Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.
New publications and recordings
“Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.” Smithsonian Folkways. Book and CDs.
“Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie” by Elizabeth Mitchell. Smithsonian Folkways.
“Bound for Glory” by Woody Guthrie. In many ways, this freewheeling and acutely observant autobiography, first published in 1943, reveals Guthrie as both a descendant of Mark Twain and a precursor to the Beats.
“Woody Guthrie: A Life” by Joe Klein. Before Joe Klein became a well-known pundit and political commentator, he tackled Woody Guthrie’s biography. Published in 1980, this is a complete and compelling portrait of the influential folksinger.