Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would have turned 100 today. Woody is one of my heroes. He pretty much invented 20th century folk music and was a true radical.
He had an extraordinary influence on so many artists. Bob Dylan more or less became Woody in the early years of his career. In recent years a small industry has developed, celebrating Woody’s music. Have a look at this classic Bruce Springsteen version of This Land from 1985. Springsteen performed it again, with Woody’s contemporary Pete Seeger at President Obama’s inauguration. Billy Bragg and Wilco have brought a swag of Guthrie’s songs to life, putting music to lyric sheets from the archive. Steve Earle, who appears in this Democracy Now studio discussion on Guthrie’s life, wrote a great account of Guthrie’s legacy in the Nation back in 2003, and has just published a novel and an album inspired by the same.
Here’s an excerpt from a tribute in the Guardian:
Guthrie was born 100 years ago today, on 14 July 1912. His family broke up amid arson, death, poverty and madness, and he left his Oklahoma home at 18 to begin a lifelong habit of taking to the open road. His overriding inspiration was always the plight of the disenfranchised, and he lent his voice to the dustbowl refugees of the 1930s depression. His politics also extended into the wider world and he joined the marines in the second world war to fight the rising tide of fascism. With the famous logo written on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists”, he wrote hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war and historic ballads to rally the troops. But he never lost sight of the practical, human dimension and also wrote songs about the dangers of venereal disease. No subject was taboo.
Forty-five years after his death Guthrie’s voice remains clear and sure, not least because his strong moral values were infused by a wry sense of humour. He wrote great songs that could be understood and enjoyed by everyone, he knew the value of a good one-liner, a storyline and a catchy melody, and he never wavered from his mission to mean every word. Here are his thoughts on the effectiveness of song in spreading ideas: “There’s several ways of saying what’s on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain’t too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing … No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don’t, if it talks the lingo of the people it’s a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you’ve cashed in your chips.”
This weekend there is a three day Woodyfest in New York, and another one in his birthplace of Omekeh, Oklahoma. And the Smithsonian have put out this amazing looking book and CD set.
I am sure if Woody were alive today he’d have been playing at one of the Aotearoa Is Not For Sale marches around the country.