THE truth is, he was never a great songwriter. The folk icon
Woody Guthrie, from the United States, who would have been 100
years old this summer, sang more than 3000 of his own compositions.
But he re-used tunes like the rest of us re-use cutlery - and most
of those he picked up from balladeers and bards, who first learned
their songs in homelands that predated America.
What he did have was a way with words, and a sense that large
parts of the still-new country were unvoiced in a rush to
superpower and wealth.
"I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your
world," he used to say, mid-performance. "And if it has hit you
pretty hard, and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what
colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the
songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And
the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of
folks, just about like you."
Guthrie died of Huntington's disease at just 55 years of age. He
was visited in hospital by Bob Dylan, who was keen to pick up the
mantle. "Woody's repertoire was beyond category," he said. "His
songs made my head spin; made me want to gasp. For me, it was an
epiphany. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned
on the main switch of a lightning conductor."
Dylan sang first the songs he had learned from Guthrie, then a
"Song for Woody", and eventually a whole body of work with its own
It was from Guthrie, too, that Bruce Springsteen tells of
learning that "speaking truth to power was not futile," adding his
own versions of his songs to the canon. Just about everyone else
has also doffed their musical cap in his direction, from Odetta and
The Byrds to today's carriers of the flame in Billy Bragg and
GUTHRIE's entry in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame lists him as
"the original folk hero". But, although many remember the great
modern troubadour's campaigning politics, few recall that the
origins of those politics lay in his faith. "All my factories run
by power of Christ in God," he once wrote, though he was often to
find that God's representatives on earth were unwilling to take
their faith as seriously.
He was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (his parents were Democrats)
in 1912. He arrived "in one of the most desolate places in
America", Steve Earle, another beneficiary of Guthrie's musical
legacy, says, "just in time to come of age in the worst period in
our history. He became the living embodiment of everything a
people's revolution is supposed to be about: that working people
have dignity, intelligence, and value above and beyond the market's
demand for their labour."
That "desolate place" was the Dust Bowl, made famous by John
Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath - Okemah, Oklahomah, to be
specific, after the oil ran out ("One of the singingest, square
dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest,
talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist-fightingest,
bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club, and razor-carryingest of our
ranch towns and farm towns," Guthrie said).
Drought forced thousands of Dust Bowl refugees west, in search
of work. Guthrie travelled on Route 66, beginning the journeys he
would be best remembered for: hitchhiking; riding freight trains;
and playing in exchange for bed and board. Arriving in California
in 1937, he was shocked at the resentment from resident
Californians, who opposed the migration of the "Okie"
It was a prejudice that he would remember in all of his journeys
through the southern states - as yet untouched by the civil-rights
GUTHRIE was quick to see that African American culture had long
been processing injustice in song, and he adopted its documentary
talking-blues style. He toured with musicians such as Lead Belly
(Huddie Ledbetter), who, having been imprisoned for killing a white
man in a fight, was everything that the racist south most feared.
Guthrie would be offered (better) food separately to his companion,
but he refused to sit in any such company, taking to the kitchens
with his friend.
The Second World War clarified his racial politics after he
joined the marines to fight fascism. On his return, he was
disgusted by the prejudicial treatment of black soldiers. Taking
the voice of Isaac Woodward, beaten sightless by police just hours
after discharge, he wrote:
It's now you've heard my story,
there's one thing I can't see,
How you could treat a human like they have treated me;
I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind;
But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.
Guthrie scrawled the words "This machine kills fascists" on his
guitar, as a reminder to all that the fight would carry on at home.
But, rather than settle into the aesthetics of victimhood, he was
also keen to remind his audience of the virtues of being on the
side of the just.
"The world is filled with people who are no longer needed. And
who try to make slaves of all of us," he said. "And they have their
music and we have ours. Theirs, the wasted songs of a superstitious
nightmare. And without their music and ideological miscarriages to
compare our songs of freedom to, we'd not have any opposite to
compare music with - and, like the drifting wind, hitting against
no obstacle, we'd never know its speed, its power."
INDEED, even in places of great suffering, Guthrie would insist
that Americans were a blessed people. In response to Irving
Berlin's complacent "God Bless America", he wrote a song that he
first called "God Blessed America". It took a high view of a land
that had been granted by God to everyone who lived there:
As I was walking that ribbon of
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
God blessed America for me.
He was to change the final line of each stanza to "This land was
made for you and me," and "This Land is Your Land", as the song was
retitled, became perhaps the most famous song in the US, albeit
with these two verses later removed:
As I went walking I saw a sign
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.
In the shadow of
the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Guthrie's qualifying verses - like Blake's "satanic mills" -
were not intended to call into question the idea that the land had
indeed been made by God. For, despite the ascription of Guthrie's
politics to various left-wing sources, the singer himself preferred
to locate them in - or at least refused to separate them from - his
"Every single human being is looking for a better way," began
another of his mid-show sermons. "When there shall be no want among
you . . . when the Rich will give their goods [to] the poor. I
believe in this Way. I just can't believe in any other Way.
"This is the Christian Way and it is already on a big part of
the earth and it will come. To own everything in Common. That's
what the Bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old
MANY of his songs echoed this sentiment and its unwillingness to
separate faith and activism. In "Christ for President", he imagines
the perfect politician:
Let's have Christ our
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That you call the Nazarene
The only way we can ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in
Oh it's Jesus Christ our
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter on the
Way up in the Capital town
The USA would be on the way
This high view of Jesus was not something that Guthrie found in
the Church. He was always likely to be drawn more to ideas than
institutions, but in his Dust Bowl days he often found himself in
search of charity. In one essay, he records a visit to a priest in
Tucson. "'Sorry, son, but we're livin' on charity ourselves,
there's nothing here for you.' I looked up at the cathedral - every
single rock in it cost ten dollars to lay and ten to chop out, and
I thought, 'Boy, you're right there's nothing here for me.'"
GUTHRIE gave short shrift to anyone whose view of the political
Jesus differed from his own - particularly when it came to his
desire that people should "own everything together".
"That's what 'social' means; me and you and you working on
something together and owning it together," he said. "What the
hell's wrong with this, anybody - speak up! If Jesus Christ was
sitting right here, right now, he'd say this very same damn thing.
You just ask Jesus how the hell come a couple of thousand of us
living out here in this jungle camp like a bunch of wild
"You just ask Jesus how many millions of other folks are living
the same way? Sharecroppers down south, big city people that work
in factories and live like rats in the dirty slums.
"You know what Jesus'll say back to you? He'll tell you we all
just mortally got to work together, build things together, fix up
old things together, clean out old filth together, put up new
buildings, schools, and churches, banks and factories together, and
own everything together. Sure, they'll call it a bad ism. Jesus
don't care if you call it socialism or communism, or just me and
When he was not berating people for getting Jesus wrong, he was
insisting that the two tributaries led to the same wide river:
"Most folks believe in union. They believe in One Big Union.
Preachers preach it, screechers screech it, talkers talk it,
singers sing it. One Big Union has got to come.
You believe in it. I know you do. You believe in it because the
Bible says you'll all be One in the Father. That is as high as
And in "Jesus Christ" (sung wilfully to the tune of "Jesse
James"), he put ignorance about Jesus and ignorance about poverty
into the same guilty hands:
When Jesus come to town, all the
working folks around
Believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
And the people
held their breath when they heard about his death
Everybody wondered why
It was the big landlord and the soldiers that they hired
To nail Jesus Christ in the sky
This song was
written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.
He was irascible, for sure; but many could easily swap that "New
York City" of the '30s and '40s to any international centre now. It
is why, 100 years after his birth, people are still singing his
"Woody is just Woody," John Steinbeck said. "Thousands of people
do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar.
He sings the songs of a people, and I suspect that he is, in a way,
"Harsh-voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre iron on
a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is
nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more
important for those who will listen. There is the will of the
people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this
the American spirit."