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Songs written in the dust

05 October 2012

The American protest singer Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old this year. He travelled the US, championing the poor, but his Christian background is largely unsung, writes Simon Jones

On message: above: Woody Guthrie looked back in anger at the Dust Bowl of his youth

On message: above: Woody Guthrie looked back in anger at the Dust Bowl of his youth

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 contrarian streak.

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 U2.

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" outsiders.

It was a prejudice that he would remember in all of his journeys through the southern states - as yet untouched by the civil-rights movement.

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 highway,
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 there
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 religious belief.

"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 Commonism."

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 President
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 President
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 seat
Way up in the Capital town
The USA would be on the way
Prosperity Bound!

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 animals.

"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 you."

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 religion goes."

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 cross,
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 songs.

"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, that people.

"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."


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