Woody Guthrie Portrait Misses His Vast Impact

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Back when Robert Zimmerman was transforming himself into Bob Dylan, he visited the ailing folk icon Woody Guthrie in the hospital, to learn whatever he could at the feet of the most important American folk musician of the 20th century.

In hindsight, it was a historic summit -- about which Dylan says this, in Peter Frumkin's flawed new "American Masters" documentary about Guthrie:

" "

And what of the incredible and undeniable influence the author of "This Land Is Your Land" and hundreds of other songs had on Dylan and his work? In the film, Dylan puts it like so:

" "

There's plenty to like about "Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home" (airing tonight at 10 on PBS): The music, the historical analysis from Guthrie biographers Ed Cray and Joe Klein, Pete Seeger's reminiscences, the abundant archival material.

But "Ain't Got No Home" ain't got no Dylan.

That would be sort of forgivable but for the fact that the program ain't got anybody else talking in any real meaningful way about the profound impact Guthrie had on Dylan or any of the other topical singers and songwriters who made their mark over the past half-century.

And they're legion, from Peter, Paul and Mary and Steve Earle to Public Enemy and Fugazi. "Not only is Bob Dylan unimaginable without him," the All Music Guide says of Guthrie, "but large segments of popular music are permanently affected by his concerns as a songwriter and his approach to the form."

Although, as Bruce Springsteen laments in the documentary, not all of Guthrie's concerns have endured. To wit: "Grand Coulee Dam" and Guthrie's other plainspoken but artful odes to the nation, written during a 1941 creative burst, when he shifted from protest songs about poverty and the Dust Bowl diaspora to ballads about American beauty and glory.

"He wrote things that were testaments to the wonder of the nation," Springsteen says. "Those songs don't get written anymore."

The program focuses as much on Guthrie's difficult life as his populist art, coming across like an elevated episode of "Behind the Music" -- albeit one about somebody with incredible talent.

Born in 1912 in Okemah, Okla., to a middle-class family, Guthrie was named after soon-to-be-president Woodrow Wilson. Guthrie's family went broke and his mother landed in an asylum (the eventual diagnosis was Huntington's disease, which would later afflict her famous son) and Woody was put up for adoption.

The Great Depression hit, then came the devastating dust storms, and Guthrie became an itinerant artist, painting and singing for his supper in towns across the country -- even after starting his first family. (He wound up fathering at least eight children by three wives. The best-known member of the brood, Arlo, doesn't provide any commentary in "Ain't Got No Home" -- although Arlo's sister Nora is interviewed extensively, along with Guthrie's first wife and his sister, among others.)

Guthrie was an activist artist, performing at Communist Party rallies and writing for Communist newspapers. After living among impoverished migrant American farmworkers in California, he went to New York and performed at a "Grapes of Wrath"-themed benefit, on a bill that included Seeger, Burl Ives and Leadbelly. Seeger, who would later popularize some of Guthrie's songs with the Weavers, remembers his old friend as "the hit of the evening," saying: "One song after another was a revelation to this audience of New York intellectuals."

Folklorist Alan Lomax recognized Guthrie as "a real authentic American voice," according to biographer Cray, and recorded the performer for the Library of Congress. Snippets of those sessions appear in "Ain't Got No Home," occasionally accompanied by reenactment footage -- a distracting cinematic device that should never, ever leave the crime-show genre.

But mostly, Guthrie wrote. And wrote. He was so prolific that he authored 1,400 songs, from whimsical children's songs such as "Riding in My Car" (as heard in a recent Nissan 350Z commercial) to perhaps the greatest of all American folk tunes, "This Land Is Your Land." The latter was his masterstroke, a sharp, simply expressed six-verse response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," whose message Guthrie had grown to despise. In "Ain't Got No Home," it's noted that "God hadn't blessed the America that Woody Guthrie knew."

Dylan couldn't have said it better himself.

Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home (90 minutes) debuts tonight at 10 on WMPT (Channel 22) and WETA (Channel 26).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company