Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Woody Guthrie

With the Centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth in the news this weekend, and the sounds of a podcast of cover versions of his songs accompanying me home from the Y this morning, I got to thinking about the role of his music in my life.

My dad used to like to sing "This Land is Your Land" in the early seventies when we were exploring North America in our 1969 Volkswagen bus, but other than that I had only some vague knowledge that Guthrie was a folksinger of some kind. And, in all honesty I never really cared for the song, although in its defense I had never heard anyone other than my father sing it.

That changed in 1988, when I bought the Folkways: A Vision Shared album, based, as I recall, on a review in Rolling Stone, which we subscribed to at our house in law school as a substitute for actual work.  It's a very good album, and I particularly recommend the Springsteen cover of "I Ain't Got No Home," which really captures, for me, the duality of the romance and the hardship of the drifter. The romance of life on the road without money has diminished for me over time, but at 23, well, you know how it is.

Fast forward a dozen years. Lloyd Cole had just started his blog, and someone from his ever-more "selective" fans--betraying Lloyd's aging base--asked if he had ever thought of recording a children's album. Lloyd politely demurred, saying something about not having what it took to write children's songs--but also recommending Woody Guthrie's songbook from that genre.

Inspired by that--and sick of the Wiggles--I bought "Songs to Grow On." Although the album wasn't everything that I had hoped for (and certainly the OG did not cotton to the songs) we did get a kick out of Little Saka Sugar, and that was in heavy rotation for a short time around 2002.

I also, via Napster, discovered some of his other music, finding a number of songs that I enjoyed and a few that I didn't. But my most amazing discovery was a version of This Land is Your Land that had a verse I had never heard before:
There was a big, high wall there
They tried to stop me.
A sign was painted: said Private Property.
But on the back side, It didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
Those lines really struck a chord. They were so subversive. So unlike the sunshiney way the song had always been presented. It was incredible to me that I'd never heard them before.

Inspired, I picked up "Bound for Glory," which Worldwide had on her bookshelf, The cover of the autobiography crowed that the book was now a motion picture implausibly starring David Carradine as the dustbowl troubadour.

In my view, the book itself was not satisfying at all. It seemed to me that the author was trying to create a mythology around himself, and that the goal was more to create a brand, rather than to recount a life story. But the reviews on Amazon are generally positive, suggesting that maybe 80s me would have enjoyed it more. But 37 year-old me had no time for the romance of the road: I was too busy trying to put kids to bed and find weekend activities that included moon-bouncing. So, when browsing in a Baltimore bookstore while waiting for a train, I discovered the biography by Joe Klein, I thought it might be worth reading, in an attempt to get to the real story.

Which is exactly what the book delivers. It is a portrait of the artist, warts and all, including his communism, his poor treatment of women and the debilitating effects of the disease that took his life. Very honest, and well written, I highly recommend it. The book confirmed that the lost verse of This Land was real, and went on to explain that the song was a reaction to the celebratory patriotism of Irving Berlin's schmaltzy "God Bless America," including the lines:
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
If God blessed America for me.
 I passed the book on to a friend in Salt Lake City on my way out to Olympia in 2003, and I haven't since thought much about Woody Guthrie until now.  I'm happy for the opportunity for reflection occasioned by the celebration of the centennial of his birth. Looking back, I seem to have spent more time with him than I would have expected, though almost every encounter was happenstance in some way. But I he keeps popping up in unexpected places, and I always seem to learn something new about the artist, and myself when it happens.

Here are two songs to cap this reflection. The first is the man himself singing Jolly Banker about a guy who is happy to lend you one as long as you pay back two, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings covering his most famous song, and including the darker verses. Pretty good story.

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