There's a lot more to Woody Guthrie - and his music - than we have been led to believe. We think we know him, having sung "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and a dozen other of his songs around campfires and in classrooms, but the image we have been encouraged to accept - that of a homespun philosopher whose Okie wit and wisdom are of the Will Rogers or Euell Gibbons variety - is a deceptive one.
The songs included on four new or reissue albums (released in anticipation of a Guthrie boom that record companies hope will be sparked by the movie version of "Bound For Glory) reveal, on the other hand, a humanist whose outlook was far more radical. Some of Guthrie's sentiments were downright "subversive" for their time and had it not been for Huntington's chorea, the nerve disease that crippled Guthrie in 1952 and led to his death at age 55 in 1967, he probably would have had a lot more problems during the McCarthy era.
The full length, unexpurgated version of "This Land Is Your Land" which closes the second volume of the "Tribute to Woody Guthrie," just re-released by Warner Brothers Records, is a case in point. This is a song made familiar by grade-school singalongs and television soft-drink ads, but how many people have had occasion to sing - or even hear - this verse:
As I went walkin' I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassin'"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin'
That side was made for you and me.
Not many, one would venture to guess; respect for property is a basic American value, and Guthrie's lyrics very cleverly mock our habitual obeisance. Landlords, bankers, policemen, hypocritical preachers and militarists were no less objectionable in Guthrie's eyes, but the judicious editing the body of his work has undergone makes it possible to skirt or ignore the militance that is obviously central to many of his songs.
That selective approach to the more than 1,000 songs Guthrie wrote may explain why "Jesus Christ," which appears on "Woody Guthrie, 1940-1946" (Warner Bros, BS 2999), has been so rarely heard. Using the idea of "Christ the Revolutionary," itself a Marxist concept popular in the 1930s, Guthrie preaches a very pointed political gospel: "Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land, a hardworkin' man and brave," he begins. "He said to the rich 'give your goods to the poor,' so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave."
Guthrie himself would probably wince at the idea of a $6.98 price tag being slapped on a record that has less than 30 minutes of his music, but the "1940-1946" album is valuable if only because it captures the awareness of class that pervades so much of Guthrie's work. The old English folk song "Gypsy Davey," for example, takes on a modern coloration, full of sexual tension and implied class struggle, when Guthrie changes the main character's social position from the traditional "squire" to the more appropriate "boss."
Fiercely political songs such as "Do Re Mi" and labor organizing tunes such as "Union Maid" and "1913 Masscre" are just as numerous on the double-record "Tribute to Woody Guthrie," but the album, which features live performance of 23 Guthrie songs by such well-known interpreters as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie, also known his gentler side. One song, "Why Oh Why," even exhibits a child-like sense of wonder and innocence.
That song, when compared to the powerful erotic narration that precedes Country Joe McDonald's off key rendition of "Women At Home," points out just how complicated Guthrie's character was. "A lot of his best work sprang from the part of him that remained forever 6 years old," Guthrie's friend and fellow Almanac Singer, Millard Lampell, once said. "He had a kid's vulnerability, a kid's directness, a kid's insight, a kid's craziness."
Oddly enough, few of those qualities - or any other - come through on "Woody Guthrie's 'We Ain't Down Yet'" (Cream CR 1002), the Guthrie memorial album being promoted by his widow, Marjorie. The album has some of the same performers and many of the same songs as the Warner Brothers set, but several songs, including the moving "Deportees" and "This Train Is Bound For Glory," are burdened with gushy string and horn arrangements - just the sort of cheap sentimentality that perpetuates the insidious mythology that has sprung up around Woody Guthrie.