Woody Guthrie: These songs are your songs
He wrote a soundtrack for the 20th century but, 100 years since his birth, Fiona Sturges asks if it still rings true
All you can write is what you see," observed Woody Guthrie on the manuscript of his most celebrated folk song "This Land Is Your Land". Clearly, Guthrie saw more than most. Written in 1940, the song was inspired by an epic cross-country trip from the west to the east coast of America via thumb, foot and freight train, during which he encountered campfire hobos, dispossessed migrant workers and farmers bankrupted by the Depression. As John Steinbeck detailed the poor and downtrodden in The Grapes of Wrath, so Guthrie, "the dustbowl troubadour", did in verse. "This Land Is Your Land" would become America's second national anthem, securing its author's status as the father of the modern protest song. It was Guthrie, after all, who inspired Bob Dylan to pick up a guitar.
Now, on the centenary of his birth, Guthrie's songs can still be heard, whether sung at President Barack Obama's inauguration concert or on the Mermaid Avenue albums, on which Billy Bragg and Wilco breathe new life into lost Guthrie lyrics, or in the countless songwriters with a political conscience performing across the world. Here, a selection of singers, writers and relatives explain his appeal and how they are keeping the Woody flame alive.
Singer-songwriter and daughter of Woody
Woody wrote about whatever came into his head, whether it was dishwashing, baseball, girls and or just boiling up a teabag, as he did in "Teabag Blues." He wrote all the time – he could run off several songs in a day – and would write on anything that he found to hand just to get the words down. So it wasn't that surprising to find all these songs in a box in New York that ended up on the Mermaid Sessions album [released in 1998]. The boxes hadn't been opened for 40 years. Some of the songs were very sexually explicit – there was one about making love to Ingrid Bergman on the side of a volcano. I flipped out when I read them. I never knew he could be so funny. Woody died [in 1967] when I was 17 and the memories I have of him mostly revolve around taking care of him or visiting him in hospital as by this time he was suffering from Huntingdon's disease. But I heard stories of what he used to be like. [The musical archivist] Alan Lomax told me once that when Woody came to dinner he just stood and ate by the kitchen sink. When he was offered a seat he said: "No, I don't want to get too comfortable." When he travelled he would put all his clothes on, layer upon layer, so he didn't have to carry them around. My own most abiding memory is his twinkling eyes. If you looked at his body you felt upset but if you looked straight into his eyes, it felt great.
I was 14 years old when I first heard Woody. I had discovered Bob Dylan in 1972, so I got Anthony Scaduto's biography on Dylan out of the library and it said he'd been hugely influenced by Woody. Eventually I tracked down a cassette. It sounded like it had been recorded at the bottom of a coal mine. It wasn't until I went to America in 1984, as a bloke with a guitar, that people started comparing what I was doing to Woody, and I went back to listen again. In 1994 Nora [Guthrie] approached me about recording the Mermaid Sessions, which entailed putting all these lost Guthrie lyrics to music, and I was like, "Great, but that sounds like a job for Bob Dylan." In the end, she sent me copies of the lyrics and I saw how complete they were, and I thought, "Well, all right then." Nora convinced me that it wasn't about the Woody that we knew, it was about the Woody that we didn't know. Our job was to introduce him to a new generation. He's the father of the topical songwriter and his influence runs very deep. Woody had "This Machine Kills Fascists" painted on his guitar. We're still fighting that fight now.
Singer and broadcaster
I got to know Woody through Dafydd Iwan's Welsh translations and also, like many others, through Bob Dylan. Guthrie wasn't just a songwriter but a song collector. Many of the songs that he amassed come from the century before he was born, so he created this wonderful archive for future generations. He had an incredibly good ear for great lyrics and a memorable tune. He also stood out with his ability to tell it like it is and to show the reality of the situations of ordinary people, which is something he picked up from African-American singers such as Leadbelly. Woody was a great talker and conversationalist. He was hugely quotable and these quotes have left their own legacy. At a time when lyrics rarely talk to us or say anything of consequence, he is more important than ever.
I heard my first Woody Guthrie song in kindergarten. It was Arbor Day, and we were planting a tree on the playground of my elementary school. We sang "This Land Is Your Land", but no one explained to us that it was written by a man named Woody Guthrie. It was taught to us as if it was written by some omniscient soul, some spirit or ghost that had soared over our cities and dwelt in our valleys, mountains and canyons. It had taken the measure of our enormous country, had seen our past and knew our destiny. A few years ago I saw Woody's original draft of "This Land Is Your Land" encased in glass in a museum. It was being cared for as a national treasure, like Lincoln's stovetop hat. American music would have taken many different turns without Woody setting us off in this direction. He's the humourist-realist-vagabond-genius-granddaddy of us all.
Author of 'This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song'
Guthrie is as important today as he was during his heyday in the late 1930s and the years of the Second World War. Many of the topics found in his best songs – immigration, poverty, capitalist greed, ecological devastation, bad banks – are still issues. He was undoubtedly an eccentric. When he was in New York in the early 1950s, he had a habit of showing up unannounced and ragged-looking at the fancy nightclubs where Pete Seeger and his group, the Weavers, were playing. At the time, the Weavers had hit the top of the pop charts and included in their set some Woody Guthrie songs. Woody was intrigued by the upscale environment of these clubs, but looked like a hobo. Finally, the Weavers' manager told Woody if he wanted to watch the shows, but refused to put on nice clothes or bath, he'd have to wear the uniform of a waiter. And that's what Woody would do every night. He'd stand there all dressed in a white jacket and nod approvingly when he heard one of his songs.
'Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions' is on the Nonesuch label. Billy Bragg's 'Woody100' tour begins at The Park & Dare Theatre in Treochy, Wales on 12 September
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