Celebrating Woody Guthrie

July 18, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

With Canada’s Birthday (July 1st), and America’s Independence Day (July 4th) having just ticked by (and ominously, partition celebrations in India and Pakistan on their way), I thought a belated birthday reference was in order. And a proper reference to a coming birthday even more needed.

July 14th is the birthday of Woody Guthrie, an individual whose actions and life does more to inspire the spirit of independence and humanity than 100 nationalist ‘Independence Days’ combined (ie: Coney Island Hotdog Eating Contests).

Born in Okemah, OK on July 14th, 1912, Guthrie has a legacy of hundreds of inspiring songs that transcend class, age, and race. He gained reknown for travelling across the USA and Canada, bringing his folk songs to audiences that included migrant workers toiling on farms for subsistence wages to political action groups looking to raise money for progressive social causes such as poverty relief and literacy programs for rural areas.

His road and train travels, particularly during the Depression, both shaped Woody and chronicled the character and spirit of people dealing with adversity.

While not linked specifically to any political organization, Guthrie did contribute a column to the Communist-linked ‘Daily Worker’ entitled “Woody Sez”, often expressing common sense advice and folksy wisdom.

His was political throughout his career. As a member of the Alamanac Singers, Guthrie campaigned for Progressive Party candidate and former Vice President Henry Agard Wallace in 1948 (an election that saw a 4 -way race with racist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, Republican Dewey, and Democratic Harry s. Truman) . With regard to politics, Guthrie might be better understood as musician Steve Earle notes:” I don’t think of Woody Guthrie as a political writer. He was a writer who lived in very political times”. An accurate assesment by any measure, as Guthrie served with and for causes from the anti war movement, to serving in the Merchant Marine. His action was mercurial, and was appropriate for the context he found himself in.

His influence his far reaching and almost impossible to guage. His fictionalized autobiography ‘Bound For Glory’ Your browser may not support display of this image., published in 1943, could easily be seen as a template for Jack Kerouac’s literary devices in On The Road. Guthrie inspired countless musicians emerging in the late 50’s and 60’s folk revival – most notably Bob Dylan, who visted Guthrie in Brooklyn’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital – by which time Guthrie was hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease.

To help people across North America and Europe keep abreast of events and celebrate the life of Woody Guthrie, www.WoodyGuthrie.Org, run by the Woody Guthrie Foundation, is painstkaingly curated and updated by President Nora Guthrie and publicist Anna Canoni.

From July 9th to Aug 17th, there are a number of notable events fom museum exhibitions to The Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival, happening the weekend closest to Guthrie’s birthday. This year it happens from July 9th to 13th.

As indicated, Guthrie wrote literally hundreds of songs, or made wonderful interpretations of works by others (such as Goebel Reeves’ Hobo’s Lullabye) , again, not to mention his work with the Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, or Leadbelly to name but a few.

Guthrie, is, of course linked to one of his most well known songs – This Land is Your Land. Written in 1940, it was a essentially a reaction to the overplaying of ‘God Bless America’ by Kate Smith. Loosely based on a melody bythe Carter Family’s gospel track ‘Oh My Loving Brother’. An anthem itself, This Land is Your Land was finally recorded in 1944 by folk archivist Moses Asch. Frustratingly, the most poignant, and pointed portion of the song – the final verses – are often edited out:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,

And on the sign there, It said “no trespassing.” [In another version, the sign reads “Private Property”]

But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!

It’s hard to find a more eloquent indictment of class inequality in modern song. Breaking that cycle is what is at the kernel of the independent spirit. Without belabouring the obvious – political parties already in the pockets of those who perpetutate such inequality, whether from India to the United Kingdom – it would be nice to remember Guthrie and have some assistance in reigniting the independent and revolutionary spirit we so sorely need.

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This post was written by Sven Eric Balabanoff

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