Woody Guthrie was an acquired taste.
That’s not such a good opening line as “Woody Guthrie was the last idol”; but it happens to be true. More than one person who has bought into the myth of Woody admits that they don’t particularly like his songs. He wasn’t a particularly good guitarist; he doesn’t have a particularly beautiful voice. I think when I first heard This Land Is Your Land I shrugged and said “cowboy singer” and didn’t listen to any more for a while.
Billy Bragg seldom lets a gig go past without singing All You Fascists Bound To Lose or I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Any More. Bob Dylan’s first album ended with a pilgrimage to visit the dying Woody. Martyn Joseph has a quote from Guthrie hanging above his song writing desk. Ralph McTell corresponded with him. Andy Irvine pretended to be him. Bruce Springsteen stood alongside Pete Seeger, who knew Woody in the days of his flesh at Barack Obama’s inauguration, and declared This Land to be probably the greatest song ever written about America. If there had been no Guthrie there would have been no skiffle and if there had been no skiffle there would have been no Quarrymen and if there had been no Quarrymen…
Woody Guthrie matters.
Woody Guthrie was a folk-singer. There is a recording of him singing the fine old ballad about the death of Jesse James. But he keeps drifting away from the familiar lyrics “but one dirty coward they call him little Robert Ford has laid poor Jesse in his grave…” Maybe that’s how they sang it when he was growing up. Maybe he thinks that the dirty little coward who shot Mister Howard” line is a bit contrived. But I get the distinct impression that he can’t remember the words and is making up new-ones on the spot. He’s got a store of stock phrases and stanzas and lines in his head and he doesn’t know what order they are going to come out in. Or even necessarily in which song.
There is a much more famous version of the Jesse James song in which Jesse has mutated into Jesus. Bob Ford was always a Judas figure: but it takes some work to make “coward” rhyme with “Iscariot’. It’s a great song; a ramblin’ Communist Jesus who was still an honest working fella.
He told Alan Lomax that there was an old hobo in the town where he grew up who claimed to be Jesse James. It was the ‘20s: the Wild West was still a living memory. One day a group of men got together and forced the old-timer to take a shower. And sure enough he really did have scars on his back, just as if he’d survived being shot some forty years earlier. But — Woody admits — he’s heard the same story told about lots of old hobos. The line between “the oral tradition” and “bullshitting” is quite fine.
In a funny way, I think it was the old fashioned parlour ballads that won me over to Woody Guthrie. Victorian Times happened in America too, and they weren’t that long ago.
Tell my darling little playmates
That I never more shall play
Give then all of my toys but mother
Put my little shoes away…
Once she was a true woman
somebody’s darling and bride
God help her she leaps!
There’s no-one to weep
That’s a picture from life’s other side.
Woody sings this sentimental rubbish with complete fidelity. A song is a song and he trusts the material. He puts the same conviction into hill-billy religious spirituals, even if you sense that the words make no more sense to him than they do to anyone else:
Zekiel saw that wheel a burnin’
Way up in the middle of the air
The little wheel ran by faith
and the big wheel ran by the grace of God
a wheel in a wheel
But it’s the songs about old America where he really weaves his spell. Whoopie ti yi yo, git along little dawgies. I’ll teach you law of the rangers command. I think I might go with you to hunt them buffalo. Woody was never a cowboy. If anything, his background was rather middle class. But he was old enough to have known people who did come from that world: his father had been a wild west sheriff, kind of. His droning, drawling voice, and his indecisive guitar chords seem to belong in that world. This is what a folk singer ought to sound like. An endless stream of tales, sung with no apparent effort or pretension. His songs don’t have introductions or endings: they start and then they stop. Verses repeat. There are long sequences of chords in the middle where you feel he is trying to remember what comes next.
Perhaps there is not that much difference between making up new lyrics when you forget the old ones and creating new songs from scratch. If you know nothing else about Woody Guthrie you have probably heard the Car Song. It comes off an album called Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child. There is nothing clever in it: he comes down to the kid’s level in a way I still find a little embarrassing:
Click clack rattle on the front seat
Spree spry spraddle on the back seat
Front door back door clickety clack
Take you riding in my car
Brm brm brm brm brm
Brm brm brm brm brm
Brm brem brem brm brm
...and so on. Billy Bragg once decided that Dry Bed would go down well on the Left Field during a particularly damp Glastonbury.
Puppy dog didn’t wet my bed last nigh
Kitty cat didn’t make my beddybed wet
Dry bed dry bed yippy yippy yi
I’m a big boy now.
It’s not every father in the 1950s who would have been prepared to go on record with that kind of baby-talk. There is something uninhibited about his Woody Guthrie's writing: as if the words just flow out of him. He was destroyed by Huntington’s Disease a neurological condition with mainly physical symptoms: but it clearly affected his mind as well. His biographer Ed Cray says it is impossible to draw a line between Woody Guthrie and his illness.
He lived through the big events of his century: the Oaklahoma dustbowl; the mass migration to California; the Second World War and its aftermath. He describes what he saw in a way that makes you think you were actually there:
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' he took up collection,
Said “So long it’s been good to know ya…”
He stole the plot of Grapes of Wrath and put it to the tune of an old hanging ballad. (He claimed that he’d never read the book, only seen the film.) He may sing about people being tractored out of their family farms and finding that the fruit picking jobs in East were mostly mythical: but he sings about it with humour and irony and catchy tunes.
It sometimes feels as if there is just one huge Woody Guthrie song: that he would pick up his guitar and hobos and oakies and outlaws and vigilantes and union maids and landlords and hangmen and convoy ships would start to flow out. Warbush Cannonball is a traditional ballad about a steam train — possibly the train that takes hobos to heaven. Guthrie gives the tune new words about the construction of a dam on the River Columbia. He sings the song in different ways on different recordings. It’s a proper folk-epic. The river and the dam and the United States are personified; we see the beauty and romance of the river but celebrate the can-do industry which is going to harness its power.
Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of 'thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, "Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you're rambling, you can do some work for me."
Guthrie may have been a Communist, but he was a patriot as well. The “warehouse boys and teamsters and guys that skin the cats / men that run the steel mills, the furnace and the blast” are just as much heroes in the war against Fascism as the soldiers and sailors and airmen. And the river itself is contributing to the war:
Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.
When Woody Guthrie was asked to define socialism, he told a story about a male rabbit and a female rabbit who had been cornered in a hollow log by a pack of angry hound dogs. “What are we going to do now?” said the he-rabbit. The she-rabbit looked him straight in the eye and said “We’ll just have to stay in here until we outnumber then”.
But I think he put it better in one of his kid songs. Probably my favourite Woody Guthrie song; maybe my favourite song. A little boy boasts that his father is the pilot on the war plane that’s just flown over their heads:
Then a pugnosed kid as he kicked up his heel
Said: My daddy works in the iron and the steel
My daddy makes planes so they fly through the sky
That’s what keeps your daddy up their so high
…You ain’t afraid and neither am I
Cos my Daddy keeps your Daddy up in the sky…
Bob Dylan said that in the end, you either turn to God or you turn to Woody Guthrie. It took me a while, but I came round to his point of view.