Woody Guthrie, Troubled Troubadour, at 100

By Don Rollins

Here’s a quote from?Woody Guthrie. “I hate a song that that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose … Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling … I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

This one’s a little history lesson for the whippersnappers. So stop the texting, put down the Red Bull, pull those Bose earplugs out of your tender ears and get ready to party like it’s 1912. Because before Jay Z and Lil Wayne were kicking the jams in your chrome-wheeled ride on the 405, there was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in scratchy AM on the radio of your great grandpa’s Hudson as it barreled west on Route 66.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, let me school ya. Woody Guthrie was a rail-thin, tortured troubadour with a tin whistle voice and beat-to-hell triple-ought Martin bearing the words “This Machine Kills Fascists.” He was a union-backing, communist-friendly, military-veteran rabble rouser who parlayed a dubious voice and meager playing abilities into a body of work that 1) helped galvanize and energize the populist response to the worst economic crisis excess capitalism has ever wrought, and 2) cast the die for an edgy, roots-music idiom that yet today serves as the scaffolding for the great American protest song.

Born on July 14, 1912 and rendered mute by both physical and psychological illnesses by age 42, Guthrie managed in less than a decade to sing, write, draw and live his way into the nation’s bleak Dust Bowl narrative – quite the achievement for a poor, scrawny, high school dropout who traded songs for sandwiches.

Guthrie came by his Dust Bowl cred the hard way. He was one of the roughly 200,000 long-suffering Okies, Arkies and Texies who, during the 1930s, set out for the poor man’s version of the California Dream. (Drought, disappearing topsoil and an onslaught of upside down mortgages – the number of which far exceeded that of the last five years – had all but erased farming and related business across massive reaches of the Great Plains. The latest estimate of the displaced is 2.5 million.)

Guthrie thumbed and odd-jobbed his way across Route 66 (also known as the “Mother Road”) more than once. But unlike most he had a gift beyond agriculture, trades or small business: writing (and occasionally poaching) memorable melodies packed with populist/socialist lyrics about individualism within collectivism.

The songs became a radio show in Texas, and the radio show became the entree into a circle of influential leftists in New York, consequently landing Guthrie on the government’s blacklist for suspected communists; but also bringing him fame as a recording artist and published writer.

By the time his various maladies cut short his creative phase, Guthrie had written thousands of songs and influenced singer/songwriters such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (as well as Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie).

But for all his successes and contributions, Guthrie’s personal life was given to chronic drama. His unquenchable wanderlust, regular philandering and frequent money issues made for a turbulent existence, not just for Guthrie but also his three wives and eight children.

By the late 1940s Guthrie was showing signs of Huntington’s disease. The creativity was fading. His speech and behavior grew increasingly erratic, and his muscles became uncontrollable. After a series of misdiagnoses and resulting years spent in psychiatric facilities, Woody Guthrie died on Oct. 3, 1967. His ashes were scattered in the Atlantic, just off Coney Island.

In the end, Guthrie was a translucent champion for the marginalized masses, personally convoluted as his lyrics and melodies were direct. Where Jimmy Rodgers before him was an entertainer and eventual country superstar, Guthrie was a social inquisitor with little consistent concern about anything approaching a career. Where Seeger after him would project a relatively positive populism, Guthrie’s more acidic nature and songs lent a darker tone to his work and legacy. Little wonder he has been referred to as an American anti-hero.

So how should we, young and old, remember Woody Guthrie on his 100th birthday? There is of course no single answer given Guthrie’s complexity. But if there were, we might give go with Steinbeck, with whom Guthrie shared both an era and worldview: “… 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.”

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Eugene, Ore.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012


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