By Will Parry
July 14 is Bastille Day and this year it’s something more. It’s the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie.
The centennial is the occasion for concerts and hootenannies in Woody’s birth town of Okemah, Oklahoma, and in many another town and city “from the redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters,” to quote from the homespun anthem everyone knows.
Woody deserves to be celebrated. He is the down-to-earth Walt Whitman of our working class. His musical and literary legacy includes some 400 recorded songs and the words to well over a thousand others. Besides the songs, he left us a tumultuous cascade of writings — poems, short stories, diaries, serious and humorous comments distilled from his hardscrabble life, and illustrated with his own pointed drawings.
He was musical from childhood. In his teen years in Pampa, Texas, he put together the Corn Cob Trio, and then the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. For a time he sang hillbilly tunes for a Los Angeles radio audience largely made up of homesick Dust Bowl refugees.
In his mid-20s, Woody began to write protest songs, expressive of people’s suffering and struggles during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. He poured out songs — “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Hard Travelin’,” Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues.”
During World War II, he wrote songs expressing his hatred of Hitler fascism. His guitar bore a sticker: “This machine kills fascists.” From his service in the Merchant Marine came “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”
At the height of his popularity he joined Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers, a constellation of gifted performers from whose ranks came the Weavers, heralding the folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties.
In New York he met Seeger, Huddy Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, Josh White and other folk artists. With Leadbelly he busked in Harlem bars. With Moses Asch of Folkways Records he recorded hundreds of songs for t’he Library of Congress.
A lifelong wanderlust carried Woody to California, Texas, Florida, New York City, and the Pacific Northwest, hitchhiking town to town, earning meals or a night’s sleep with his tunes, or by painting signs on a storefront. Woody said he traveled Route 66 so often he “ran it up to 6,666.”
Woody left boxes overflowing with writings and songs that in the years since have been painstakingly sorted and catalogued by his daughter Nora. This rich legacy will soon be available to scholars and interested visitors at the Woody Guthrie center under construction in Tulsa.
Woody’s white hot creativity lasted little more than a single decade of his 55 years. Stuffering with an incurable neurological disease, Huntington’s Chorea, he entered a hospital in 1954 and died there in 1967.
The songs live on, touching us all. Every kind of song, from “Riding in My Car, Car” and “Clean-o” for girls and boys, to “Deportee,” the wrenching story of a plane crash that took the lives of nameless field workers being deported to Mexico. The songs kept coming, from the spirited “Roll on, Columbia” to “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Any More,” bringing home the miseries of the Depression and the Dust Bowl years.
In 1941, my father took me to hear Woody and his sidekick Cisco Houston perform at the old Workers’ Alliance Hall on Seattle’s skid road. I don’t remember what songs Woody and Cisco sang that evening. I do remember the long, narrow hall, crowded with men in tin pants and work boots, the air blue and heavy with smoke from roll-your-own cigarets. For a kid barely out of his teens, it was an unforgettable introduction to the rough and rowdy reality of working class life.
And over the ensuing seven decades the music of Woody Guthrie has been woven into the fabric of my life, heard on tape, sung by myself on the front porch or with friends around the campfire,
“Some day,” wrote Clifton Fadiman in The New York Times, “people are going to wake up to the fact that Woody Guthrie and the ten thousand songs that leap and tumble off the strings of his music box are a national possession like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and part of the best stuff this country has to show the world.”
And Don Rollins, writing in The Progressive Populist, quoted John Steinbeck: “Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire 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 oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”