July 14, 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody Guthrie. September 27, 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event. However, when you stop and consider how much one man from Okemah, Oklahoma impacted popular culture, specifically popular music, you’ll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31, 2012 looking through his entire work, we’d only begin to scratch the surface of its significance.
Just to begin with, there are the musicians around the world whom he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2, and punk rockers like the late Joe Strummer of the Clash have cited Guthrie as one of their inspirations. Guthrie had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the Depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl, either—he could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers, and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and in a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn’t just write about the poor and oppressed; he wrote about everything. Guthrie wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, “This Land Is Your Land,” a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.
When he died in 1967, after spending nearly the last 13 years of his life hospitalized by the Huntington’s Disease which killed him, Guthrie left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and notebooks. Guthrie’s son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a houseguest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn’t find any scraps of paper to write stuff on, one could wake up in the morning and find the walls covered, as his inspiration wasn’t something that was going to be denied. It’s only recently that his family has begun the labor of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue, a collection of previously unreleased Guthrie songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
To kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Guthrie’s birth, 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie, featuring 12 songs inspired by Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture–from his contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; to those who have picked up Woody’s torch to become voices of protest today (Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne); to a real surprise, Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either covered previously unrecorded songs by Guthrie or, like Browne, were inspired by entries in Guthrie’s journals.
No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Guthrie’s voice. What’s particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off, and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on “There’s A Feeling In The Music.” DiFranco’s “Voice”, and Terkel’s “I Heard A Man Talking” both tackle the subject of lyrics. Terkel’s is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, but DiFranco’s and Seeger’s songs show an introspective side of Guthrie, revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs, Guthrie’s work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
Of course you can’t ignore the social justice aspect of Guthrie’s music, and “Wild Card In The Hole,” performed by Madeleine Pevroux, and “Old Folks,” sung by Nellie McKay, are two fine examples of Guthrie’s approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is “The Debt I Owe,” put to music by Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he’s in financially. However we soon realize those aren’t the only debts eating at him. No, the ones he’s really tortured by are debts he owes for how he’s treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece, as he’s able to capture the bleakness of the man’s soul with the right level of detachment to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. It’s as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you’re liable to hear anywhere by anyone.
The final song of the recording shows us a side of Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don’t associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Browne’s 15-minute song, “You Know The Night” (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15, 2011 and can be heard online), it’s not because he never gave the subject any thought. Based on a 30-page entry in Guthrie’s journals talking about the night he met his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, thee song is an unabashed confession of love along with a wonderful list of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need–from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility–are dealt with as Guthrie and Browne run down what atrracted Guthrie to his wife. Yet it’s far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we’ve met the person we believe we’re supposed to spend the rest of our lives with.
Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don’t have a voice in his music. The Anti-Communist witch hunts of the Post World War II era followed by the onset of his fatal disease not only denied him the opportunity for writing and performing; it also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn’t until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was “discovered” by a new generation, and even then it was only as the Guy Who Inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure, schoolkids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.
Guthrie wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about: the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, sharecroppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren’t popular topics in the Post-War boom days, and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding the draft and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to any of his songs, you’ll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people’s stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another: our hearts.
In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear 12 American singers, musicians, and writers from across the generations offering their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been released before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there is something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you’d thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012, let’s hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe at the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie’s centenary, he’ll be appreciated for the artist he was, and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.