Writings in the Key of You: Woody Guthrie's Enduring Legacy
This story first appeared in Sing Out! v.55#1, Autumn 2012
Woody Guthrie is a very busy man these days. That’s a peculiar thing to say about a man who turns 100 this year and has been dead for nearly a half-century. But Woody is a peculiar genius, and there’s no question he is more famous, influential – and prolific – than he’s ever been. As his granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie jokes, “It’s a good thing he’s a spirit now, so he can be in all these places at the same time.”
An all-star tour called Woody At 100 is underway, produced by the Grammy Museum and Woody Guthrie Archives, charting his travels from his birthplace of Okemah, Oklahoma, along the migrant worker trail to Texas and California, through Pennsylvania, where he sang for labor unions, to New York, where he lived the final years of his life.
The Archives were recently purchased by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is building a resource center and museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Several new Guthrie books are being published this year, including a songbook, Every 100 Years, and Robert Santelli’s epic This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of An American Folksong. A new documentary, “Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Columbia River Songs,” premiered this spring. Amazon lists an astonishing 467 albums of Woody Guthrie songs available.
In his lifetime, Woody was a fairly obscure figure, even while writing some of America’s best-known songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “Riding in My Car (Car, Car).” He became better known in the 1960s, but largely as a hero to the new folk songwriters. Bob Dylan said he was a “Woody Guthrie jukebox” when he arrived in New York in 1961.scalarik 296
Tom Paxton, another ‘60s icon and Woody disciple, says, “I wanted to write like Woody, with his directness and honesty. Woody was, to me, the guy who stayed true to the tradition and brought it forward, like Pete Seeger did. But I listened to how Woody mirrored his own time and realized I wasn’t to write a folk song from 1497. The subject had to be from my life, my time. I got that from Woody.”
Woody’s impact and visibility are even greater today. Two all-star Guthrie albums have been released this year, New Multitudes, with hip rockers Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames; and “Note of Hope,” featuring Rob Wasserman, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley.
Since 1998, when the landmark Billy Bragg and Wilco CD of Guthrie songs “Mermaid Avenue” was released, the Woody Guthrie Archives, overseen by Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, has coordinated similar collaborations with the Klezmatics, Jonatha Brooke, Corey Harris, Dropkick Murphys, Natalie Merchant, John McCutcheon, Slaid Cleaves, Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson, and many others.
But these are not simply reinterpretations of existing Guthrie songs. They are new songs with lyrics from Woody’s unpublished songs, poems, and journals, set to music by modern musicians, often in highly inventive and freewheeling ways. Farrar’s riveting “Hoping Machine,” for example, used a prose piece in a Guthrie journal (“Lonesome train whistling down the silent wail of wind/ Life is the sound, creation has been a song”). Woody recorded 300 of his roughly 3,000 songs. These collaborations have added 150 more to the available canon.
What is it about this hard-traveling, long-gone songwriter that remains such a magnet to modern musicians? Generation after generation falls under his spell, for most of the right reasons and a few of the wrong ones. And that has never been more true than it is today. Why? Ask folks inspired by Woody, and the answers are as dizzyingly esoteric and front-porch plain as the man himself.
Urban songwriter Jonatha Brooke cites his ego and selflessness – in the same breath. Tom Paxton mentions “real,” and then “irresponsibility.” Jay Farrar, of Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, says “timeless relevance,” and Boston folkster Alastair Moock uses the words “empowering” and “cool.” Centromatic star Will Johnson thinks of Woody as the first punk rocker, and Boston songwriting star Ellis Paul mentions his integrity, but also his often tragic life, calling Woody “kind of a Van Gogh figure.”
Sarah Lee Guthrie, a terrific songwriter herself, calls him a regular guy and a saint, as if the two are perfectly compatible. And in Woody’s peculiar heaven, they are.
How could the same man fit all those descriptions? Nora Guthrie says, “Personally, I’ve heard as many answers to Woody’s influence as people who’ve talked about it. One of the most important things I read about it was Bob Dylan saying, ‘You listen to Woody Guthrie’s songs and you actually learn how to live.’ That’s quite jumping-off point.”
Texas songwriter Jimmy LaFave thinks it is the very vastness of Woody’s life that is so alluring. Guthrie has become a second career to him, with the Ribbon of Highway/Endless Skyway tribute shows, and now his Walking Woody’s Road tour. He is working with Nora Guthrie on a country album of new Guthrie songs.
“His life was so humongously large,” LaFave says, “fighting the Ku Klux Klan, had his own radio show, sang on picket lines, wrote the first million-selling country song, “Philadelphia Lawyer,” had ships torpedoed under him in the Merchant Marine, wrote books, plays, autobiographies, painting. There were all these tentacles to his life. I think his brain had to be super-charged, have a few more cells working than normal people. I just don’t know anyone who compares – and we’re still discovering things he did.”
Indeed, a Guthrie novella called House of Earth was recently discovered among his papers in Oklahoma, and is being prepared for publication by historian Douglas Brinkley and actor Johnny Depp.
As another example of Guthrie’s insatiable mind, LaFave said that Arlo Guthrie met a librarian in Pampa, Texas, where Woody lived briefly. She said Woody was the only person she knew who’d read every book in the town library. Arlo laughed and said he knew his dad liked to read. “No, I mean it,” the old librarian said, “He actually sat down and read every single book. Every one.”
Just as inspiring is the way Woody distilled that universe of experience into such simple, knowable songs and truths.
Ellis Paul says, “A lot of people see Woody as a social-issue writer or labor writer, and I never see those things. I see the humanity and the characters, the details of the story and the conflict. The bigger issues and social impact are on the outside. I think that’s what makes him so great, that ability to find the humanity and a story to tell, and not just flog you over the head. Also, the beauty and flow of the language kills me: “In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray” [“Grand Coulee Dam”]. He was so aware of the rhythm and the musicality of words.”
Those are certainly lessons Tom Paxton learned, which helped him write some of the most effective political songs of the ‘60s. “What I learned from Woody was tell it like it is. If you see an injustice, put it in a song. But draw a picture, don’t preach a sermon. A friend of mind told a born-again Christian once, ‘It doesn’t bother me that God tells you what to do; it bothers me that God tells you to tell me what to do.’ Woody didn’t do that; he told us a story.”
As personal as Woody’s songs feel, Nora Guthrie says he was rarely writing about himself. About songwriting, he wrote, “I look though your eyes to see the hill you’re standing on,” and “Every word I ever wrote was something I heard from somebody else. My job is to tell you something you already know.”
“Woody always wrote in the key of you,” Norah says. “He was always putting himself in the shoes of people he met along the way. He’s the fly on the wall in everybody’s life.”
“There’s a breadth to his subject matter that is astonishing,” says Texas roots-rocker Will Johnson. “He could stop you in your tracks just as easily with a song about heroin or prostitution as he could with a children’s song about brushing your teeth. His voice carried to so many places, and he wrote with such detail. He wasn’t afraid to write about anything. At the same time, there was great humor and self-deprecating themes that made him so relatable, so approachable. He was an everyman in so many ways.”
That idea of the songwriter as mirror of his time extended to his melodies, too. “I never wrote an original melody on purpose,” he liked to say, preferring to draw ideas from the accessible - and singable - strains of traditional music. Woody didn’t look at the world and say, “What do I want to say?” He looked at people and said, “What could they use a song about?” He wrote songs to be useful in our real lives, whether that was manning picket lines, courting a lover, picking fruit, or getting kids to take a bath.
Nowhere is that quality more clearly traced than in his brilliantly empathetic children’s songs. He wrote song cycles to take children through their daily lives, from getting up in the morning to brushing their teeth, going to school, playing in the yard, having fun with their parents, and going to sleep. As Ellis Paul says, “They put kids on a gerbil-wheel mentally, spinning them round and round and round. Like, ‘Let’s go ride in the car-car,’ that use of repetition really charms kids.”
Nora laughs and says, “I can tell you as the victim of all that creativity that half his children’s songs were to make the jobs that children had to do go by better, faster, more fun. The same as his adult songs. Woody understood that everybody had, as he put it, a job of work to do, whether that’s building a dam, cutting a log, or cleaning up your room.”
She laughs now, seeing with adult eyes how manipulative her parents were with these songs. Rather than barking commands, they’d get her singing “I got my shoe, pick it up, pick it up. I got my shirt, pick it up, pick it up.” Next thing she knew, her room was clean. Even going to bed, she’d be singing verse after verse with them until, suddenly, she was under the covers and the light was being turned off.
“They could control us from morning till night in a way we didn’t even know we were being controlled,” she says. “We were learning all the things we needed to know about taking responsibility, but without feeling we were being hammered. They didn’t give me rules, they gave me teachings.”
She often finds examples of how these songs were carved from their day-to-day lives. “Just the other day I came across a letter he wrote to my grandmother, saying ‘I can’t write much more because my kids are all yelling “take me for a ride in the car.” So that’s when that song happened. He listened. And he put those things into songs people are still singing and using as families today.”
He didn’t just tackle the workaday issues of childhood, though. As with all his other songs, he was unafraid to tackle the tough problems. A perfect example is “Don’t You Push Me Down.” It is not merely an anti-bullying song; it is a song for the victim to sing. Who feels more alone in the world than the child being bullied? And yet, look, here’s a whole song that knows exactly how you feel: “You can wear my mommy’s shoes/ Put on my daddy’s hat/ You can even laugh at me/ But don’t you push me down/ Don’t you push me, push me, push me/ Don’t you push me down.”
“He had an amazing empathy,” says Moock. “I think he really understood how kids feel. That’s very empowering, because it means kids have something to say, too.”
Another key to his enormous capacity for turning life into song was a complete disregard for commercial norms. Norah thinks he simply didn’t have the social filters most of us have, whether we want them or not.
“He didn’t self-censor because he wasn’t a commercial writer,” she says. “He was an idiot writer, like no one told him you’re not supposed to write songs about venereal disease or flying saucers. We self-compartmentalize; as human beings, we like to fit into a certain bin. The thing that was crazy about Woody – and it was crazy – is how he didn’t do that, for some reason I really don’t know.”
That’s why Will Johnson thinks of him as the original punk rocker. The punk movement was all about ignoring the rules, the norms – the expectations.
“There was no fourth wall with Woody,” he says. “When you’re on a stage or in a rock club, there’s a barrier between you and the audience. He never gave off that distance, and that’s why folks respond to him so positively, even if they don’t agree with him. It’s hard to deny that he’s telling it exactly like he feels it. That’s very appealing in this age of hiding backstage and keeping a certain kind of public image.”
This quality did not always express itself in such lofty, idealistic ways, however. And those other ways are also part of the catnip that draws us to Woody, particularly when we’re young. Admit it. The way he lived his life, he made irresponsibility seem like a higher calling.
“It’s the irreverence, the little guy telling the big guy not to push him around,” says Paxton. “I think young people like that; I know I did. But it’s also the irresponsibility, the guy who goes out for cigarettes and doesn’t come back for a couple of months.”
That has unmistakably been part of the allure for generations of Woody wannabes, the notion that the pursuit of our muse forgives all sins and allows all things: I’m just searching for my song, honey; I don’t know when I’ll be home.
“There’s the whole troubadour highway thing with Woody,” says Ellis Paul. “Lost in the travel of being a musician, coast to coast, car to train, couch to couch. Along the way he had multiple families, multiple lovers; this rambling, traveling things was definitely iconic. And the way he just fluttered his money away, gave it to anyone who needed it, and didn’t measure his success that way. I know he was sweating the bills, too, always trying to send money home. But that’s the myth and a big part of the mystique.”
Will Johnson says, “He came by his irresponsibility honestly, along with his other weaknesses. He didn’t sweep them under the rug, like most public figures do. He was incredibly honest about what he was. His sexuality, too; he came by that very honestly, wrote that stuff right out. With everything, it was like, take it or leave it, but that’s me.”
In ways, Woody seemed quite conscious about the myth building around himself, the ways he was becoming an icon of iconoclasticism. One cannot help but notice how artfully he struck insouciant poses in photographs, and how he calibrated his accent to highlight or downplay his Okie persona. But even when the myth strays from the facts, it is striking how closely it fits with the man he really was.
For example, folks still argue about whether or not Woody was a communist. He generally answered by saying “I don’t know if I’m necessarily a communist, but I been in the red all my life.” He liked to call himself a “common-ist,” as in lover of the common people.
Paxton says that Woody’s manager Harold Leventhal told him the truth was that the Communist Party didn’t want him to join, because they thought he was too unreliable. That probably meant he couldn’t be depended on to toe the party line if he disagreed, and who could doubt the truth of that?
Nora Guthrie says she’s heard that story from several sources. A bit impatiently, she adds that whether it’s true or not, Woody’s own writings tell us exactly how he felt about these things. When he was asked to put his religion on a medical form, he wrote “All.” When told he had to pick only one, he shook his head firmly. “All or none,” he said. “All or none.” That pretty fairly describes his politics, too.
“He refused to belong to anything, and that gave him permission to love everything,” Nora says. “He didn’t belong to Oklahoma, which left him free to love New York. I learned that from my father: don’t sign up for anything, try to get to know everything.”
But his Leftist leanings were clear. He was a socialist, a humanitarian, a populist, a lover of people, and a believer that they all deserve a fair shake. All or none. It’s embedded in every line of every song he ever wrote.
“I am out to sing songs,” he wrote, “that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you down and rolled over you, not matter what color, 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.”
Knowing that about him makes it even more delicious to see how he is benefitting from those beliefs today. What other writer has ever been so posthumously prolific? New song after new song is being heard, taking the his vision to all corners of the modern music landscape. Irving Berlin may have more cover albums, but he ain’t writing new songs. Woody is, thanks to all those teachings Nora Guthrie picked up while being sung into brushing her teeth and doing her chores. The Woody Guthrie Archives is not a place to collect what Woody called “dusty old dust.” It’s a place to find songs that fit the tongues of today.
How did that all start? Where did this marvelous, generous, and utterly Woody-like idea come from? Nora says it was hatched shortly after she started working with the Woody Guthrie Foundation in the early ‘90s and was just beginning to go through her father’s archives. Maine songwriter Slaid Cleaves sent them a tape of a song he’d written from a poem in Pastures of Plenty, a 1990 book of unpublished writings.
Harold Leventhal, who was running the Foundation, walked into Nora’s office waving the tape around, excoriating these young musicians for having the temerity to write their own songs from Woody’s words. He ceremoniously threw it in the trash and walked back into his office.
Nora picked it up and said, “Have you listened to it?” He harrumphed that he hadn’t, so she did.
“And it was so beautiful,” she remembers now. “Slaid was singing ‘This Morning I Am Born Again,’ a lyric about a subject no had written about, which was Woody’s spirituality. For years, Harold’s job was to protect Woody, and he just stayed in that protective mode. I went into his office to say how much I liked the song, and he said, ‘But we don’t let…’”
That’s as far as he got. He was, after all, talking to a Guthrie. “Let?” Nora said sharply. “What do you mean we don’t let? What’s the policy on let?”
She was beginning to go through Woody’s unpublished songs, discovering how much more vast his subject matter was than previously thought. She wondered what she could do with these treasures that would fit Woody’s spirit and legacy. Well, that was easy: he would want them to be sung. That’s why he wrote them.
After a long, silent moment, Nora’s voice softens. “I felt like he had been struck down by so many things in his life, by the Dust Bowl, the Depression, World War II, the blacklist, and finally by Huntington’s. He never had a trajectory, an open path, a chance to finish things. So all these songs I was finding, I felt like, ‘Oh dad, let me help you out here.‘ Give the guy a break – that became my personal motto.”
She also knew her dad would not want the songs presented as archival curios, relics of another time. He wrote songs to be contemporary, whenever and wherever they were sung.
Jonatha Brooke wrote a song to an e.e. cummings poem when she was with her band The Story. The cummings archive was militantly protective, making her, as she put it, “Go through 20 million people and list 20 million copyrights and not change one thing, and they wanted royalties for 10,000 copies up front.” So she approached her Woody Guthrie album, “The Works,” with some trepidation.
“It was such an awesome extreme from the cummings experience,” she says. “It’s like Woody’s still there, still changing and evolving because of the collaborative nature of his work. And it is collaborative: it’s folk music and he wrote it for all of us. Nora understands that. She’s been so adventurous in pairing his lyrics up with people. She allows us so much freedom to choose what works for us and to be creative with it. It’s incredibly bold of her, and it really allows Woody to be in the room with you.”
Jay Farrar says, “Walking up the steps to the Archives, I was intimidated by the idea of working with Woody Guthrie. But once I walked in and saw all he had to offer, it was all about inspiration. There was such a variety to choose from, which helped us all find material that suited our styles. What you see in all of Woody’s writing is that he wanted to bring in as many people as he could to share his way of thinking and ethos. All these new songs are a testament to his relevance and vision, but also to the open heart of Nora Guthrie.”
Perhaps the real secret to the Woody mystique is how snugly it fits the songs he left us. Like the greatest American storytellers, from Abe Lincoln to Frederick Douglass to Mark Twain to Utah Phillips, Woody was his own best yarn. His life spilled out like lore, punctuated by highways, rivers, labor camps and stormy oceans, peopled by hobos and intellectuals, labor radicals and lovers, immigrant refugees and compadres named Lefty Lou, Cisco, and Lead Belly. His life, and how he lived it, was the best ballad he left us, and the song that makes all the other songs true.
“I think you could sum it up in one of his lines,” says LaFave. “‘I ain’t gonna be treated this-a-way.’ He just refused to, and that extends to folksingers today. There’s a sense of honesty and social justice we take with us wherever we go, and we’re not going to back down, not going to sell out. We stay working-class musicians doing this, and Woody made that something to be proud of.”
“I think there’s an even bigger magnet today for Woody than there was 20 years ago, because the myth is more galvanized,” says Ellis Paul. “I made a pilgrimage to Okemah when I was 25, and I had trouble finding anyone who knew where his place was. Now there’s a Woody Guthrie Festival there every year and a statue in front of his place. All these new artists making songs from his stray lyrics have helped to mythologize him in ways that are more touchable than he was before. It’s forcing this fresh, contemporary discovery of him.”
Even Sarah Lee Guthrie says her grandfather was a distant figure to her until recently. What changed that was working with him the way so many others have, writing new songs from unpublished lyrics for her irresistible family album, “Go Wagaloo.”
“Making music with him,” she says, “I really felt like he was with me, dancing in front of me, waving his arms and saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ And I’d never felt that before. But I don’t want to be selfish; I think Woody is part of everybody who loves him. People today look to him as kind of a religion, a saint, because he didn’t care about the things that don’t matter; he cared about the things that do matter, like love. Especially today, I think people need somebody like Woody to remind us of love, grace, compassion, and he teaches that in such a down-to-earth way.”
Norah says, “To me, these songs are not relics, they’re unfertilized seeds.”
She chuckles to herself, then whispers, as if sharing a secret. “You know, sometimes I think Woody planned it this way, so what when things like Occupy Wall Street come along, he’s got a new song for it. And my job is to harvest the seeds he left, then get them out in the world where he wants them to be.”
(c) 2012 Sing Out! Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information about Sing Out! magazine, check out www.singout.org.