Journalist and author Chris Nickson takes a look back at the life and times of American folk icon Woody Guthrie on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Lord, he was born a rambling man. A century ago this month, a child named Woodrow Wilson Guthrie came into the world in the ramshackle town of Okemah, Oklahoma. What no one could ever have guessed at that time was that the boy would become America’s most influential singer-songwriter. Without him there’d have been no Dylan, no protest singers, and the underdogs of society might never have had a voice.
Woody Guthrie grew to become a man of words and music, moving restlessly back and forth across the continent in a way that would make the Beats seem lazy. His guitar killed fascists, and his songs still resonate down the years, big anthems like This Land Is Your Land, Deportees and I Ain’t Got No Home are just as relevant today as they were when the dust bowl of the 1930s uprooted thousands from Oklahoma in search of a better life on the West Coast; many of his greatest compositions are gathered together on the expansive Some Folk box set.
He lived a remarkable life, but it’s his legacy that’s his true greatness. His son, Arlo, made his reputation with Alice’s Restaurant, the classic anti-Vietnam war song cut from his father’s cloth, and remains a musical figure who tours and records regularly, while his granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, has become highly respected in folk circles for the music she makes with her partner, Johnny Irion. That’s just the immediate family. The ripples go far, far wider. Almost every artist of note in the last half-century has covered one of Woody’s songs. Via Bruce Springsteen or Pete Seeger, from Ani DiFranco to Pearl Jam, he still speaks to people.
There’s also the Woody Guthrie Foundation, run by his daughter Nora, which has a huge archive of lyrics the man penned – around 3,000 of them – but never set to music. A select few have had the chance to dip into that treasure trove; it’s been the basis for the three Mermaid Avenue albums, the lauded collaborations between Billy Bragg and Wilco, and New York’s Klezmatics have released two albums of Woody’s Jewish lyrics.
It’s not only the amount of lyrics Woody left behind which is staggering, but its breadth. The songs about the social condition are his best known, of course, the first protest songs against the greed of the bankers and the wealthy, and the plight of those with nothing – conditions he knew first hand. But there are also those Jewish songs, which he penned after settling in Brooklyn and a cornucopia of children’s songs. It’s a goldmine with so many seams still to be explored.
In so many ways Guthrie was an American archetype. In the best American fashion his restless soul took him back and forth across the continent. He was the minstrel with a guitar on his back and rarely more than a few dollars in his pocket.
“He’d have loved to have made some money,” says Jonny Irion, partner to Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and himself a descendant of writer John Steinbeck, a friend and admirer of Guthrie who wrote about the man: “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 against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.” Woody might have become a household name and a hero to many, but that didn’t make him a rich man. “He was trying to make it as an artist,” Irion continues, “but he gave away everything he had.”
And with the vault full of lyrics, he keeps on giving. For Sarah Lee Guthrie, born 12 years after her grandfather’s death, “it was a great space to enter into the archives and feel his spirit there. I’d wanted to do it before but it wasn’t time.” She selected one of the children’s lyrics, Go Waggaloo, to record and “what happened seemed natural, the words jumped off the page. He wrote with such great rhythm, the melody was there – we worked well together! It was a precious moment and it brought me closer to him.”
Perhaps curiously, she wasn’t raised to idolise Woody – possibly because her father is Arlo Guthrie, enough of a legend on his own terms to want to avoid hero worship.
“People told stories,” she recalls, “and I discovered the books and records for myself. It was gradual, there was never one day. It increased as I grew older. But people would treat you differently because of the connection, like the music teacher.” When Sarah began performing in her late teens, she didn’t feel a huge amount of pressure. “It helped to know it was my dad who’d had that weight, but he actually used it as a way forward rather than a shadow. I thought it was a light – I tend to be an optimist. We’re blessed to be in this position, although sometimes it can be difficult. People sometimes expect us to be what we’re not.”
And Irion definitely wasn’t familiar with the mythology surrounding Woody when he first met the family: “My mom was into the Kingston Trio, that’s as deep as she got. I didn’t know much about the family history.”
That family history is a mix of reality and legend. Certainly at points the reality has been embellished. It’s true that Guthrie was born on 14th July 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, into a family that lived precariously. He was eight when oil was discovered nearby and Okemah became a boomtown – Deadwood on the plains – although once the oil dried up, everyone moved on. It was a time that formed Guthrie, chronicled in his autobiographical novel Bound For Glory, and set him in his path.
Several fires dogged the family home, one killing his sister Clara, another badly burning his father. His mother, Nora, suffered from Huntington’s Chorea, which leads to dementia and eventually death. She ended her life in the Oklahoma Hospital For The Insane, where she died in 1930.
At 17 he lit out for Pampa, Texas, marrying Mary Jennings there and starting his musical career, singing and playing guitar. But it was a bad time that was about to grow worse. Not only was America suffering from the Great Depression, but the Dust Bowl was drying up huge swathes of the country, sending families west in search of work and somewhere to live – all the Okies who ended up in California. Woody was among them, riding the freights with other hobos and taking whatever work he could find to support his growing family – he’d become the father to three children – and singing and playing for his bed and board.
He saw and lived the life of Tom Joad, and understood how the poor and the dispossessed were often treated. By the time Mary and the kids joined him, he’d landed a radio show on KFVD in Los Angeles in 1937, his attitudes and politics had been formed by his experiences. He gained a large following among the displaced and poor with songs like Tom Joad, I Ain’t Got No Home and others, before packing up and going east in 1940, all the way to New York City, where he fell in with the Alan Lomax crowd and made his first record, Dust Bowl Ballads, notably after that he started recording for the more radical Folkways label. As part of the left wing crew that included Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and others, loosely organised under the name of the Almanac Singers (eventually to coalesce into the Weavers, one of the seminal American folk bands), Woody honed his political writing for the group and performed more. He brought his family from LA, only to decide he’d had enough of the city and took them off to new pastures – Portland, in the Pacific Northwest. But this time there was a job waiting – writing songs for a documentary film about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. The job only lasted a month, but it produced at least two Guthrie classics – Roll On Colombia and Grand Coulee Dam. Most remarkably, it was Woody on the government payroll. Once the job was over he escorted his family back to Pampa, Texas – splitting up with Mary – then hitch-hiked back to the East Coast.
Woody Guthrie – Grand Coulee Dam taken from the album This Machine Kills Fascists (Snapper)
Settled in New York again, he met and married Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham and a kindred political spirit. He spent time in the Merchant Marine and the Army during World War II, becoming an entertainer in the USO, using free time to write patriotic songs like All You Fascists Bound To Lose. It’s from this time that the only performance footage of Woody Guthrie exists – remarkably, there are hardly any clips of him.
Woody performing Ranger’s Command (1945)
Woody performing John Henry with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (1946)
After the war, he and Marjorie settled on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn, along with their children, and Woody became a real family man, recording albums of children’s songs and discovering Judaism through his wife – which led him to write more songs as he explored the faith.
But there was a great shadow forming. Woody began to experience mood swings and strange behaviour. He didn’t know what was happening, although he undoubtedly remembered his mother’s decline. Not knowing what to do, and scared of how he might act, Marjorie suggested he leave the family.
They divorced, and Woody went back to California, taking his acolyte Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with him, and staying at the theatre owned by Will Geer (Grandpa on The Waltons).
His symptoms continued and worsened, but that didn’t stop him from meeting and marrying his third wife, Anneke Van Kirk and having another child. They moved to Florida, where an accident with a fire left Guthrie no longer able to play the guitar. From there they travelled to New York, where Van Kirk, unable to care for a worsening Woody, divorced him.
By now he’d had a number of diagnoses for his problem, anything ranging from alcoholism to schizophrenia. It wasn’t until 1954 that he received the devastating news that he had Huntington’s Chorea, the same disease that killed his mother. Marjorie stepped back into the picture, looking after Woody until he was hospitalised in 1956. From there he spent the rest of his life in different institutions. His family visited regularly, and a young Bob Dylan was often at his bedside, sharing songs with the great man. Woody Guthrie finally died in October 1967, just a month before his son Arlo released Alice’s Restaurant, continuing the family tradition of protest songs.
That’s the man, but what about all he left behind? It was only later in his life that people became widely aware of Guthrie and his songs, and that was mostly due to covers by other people. The Almanac Singers and the Weavers were the first, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott heightened the legend, and Dylan’s adoration of the man brought him the attention and acclaim of a new generation. In fact, according to Frank London of the Klezmatics, Guthrie’s Jewish lyrics “were the ones Dylan wanted when he came to see Woody, but they weren’t ready yet”. A mythology’s grown up around Guthrie, that of the Dust Bowl balladeer, and some of his greatest material did come out of that. Yet, as London points out, “I was surprised to learn he spent more time in Brooklyn than he did in the Dust Bowl.”
Since his death the cult of Woody has grown and grown. There’s an annual Guthrie festival in his home town, there have been numerous tribute concerts over the years – and most especially this year. In March, Austin’s SXSW festival ran a panel on Woody at 100 featuring Arlo and Nora and just last month he was given the first Pioneer Award at the National Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in New York. He’s been lauded by so many, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award – quite an honour for someone who never sold many records while he was alive.
There have even been plays about the man, and the latest, This Land: The Story Of Woody Guthrie In His Owns Words will be playing at the Edinburgh Festival this summer. Written and directed by Steve Byrne of Interplay Theatre Group in Leeds, it grew from his obsession with Woody which began when “I did a show that looked at The Grapes Of Wrath. I became interested in the story of the man and wanted to tell about the hardship, his troubles in New York as a communist, and the disease that killed him.”
Eight different actors play Guthrie at different stages of his life, and Harry Hamer, once the bassist in Chumbawamba is one of them, perhaps a fairly natural fit. To him, “‘This Guitar Kills Fascists’ is such a great slogan. He’s a songwriter from another time when things were more clear-cut. It rings with me that he championed the underdog, which is what we wanted to do with Chumbawamba. He was a really good songwriter, too. There was a lot of sadness, as well. It’s fascinating, he was unique, and it wasn’t until the end of his life, when he was sick, that he got the acknowledgement he deserved. He wasn’t afraid to wear his politics on his sleeve. It’s good there are people who will say what they think, no matter what it costs them.”
Woody’s story is very American, of course; there couldn’t be a character like him from England, or anywhere else in the world. But, insists Byrne, “It’s also international. When we began planning this six years ago, the politics seemed far away, but now it’s much more pertinent. What I love about his story is the spirit of the working people and their stories being told; it’s about the downtrodden and being able to say what you feel, what you’ve experienced. And theatrically, it’s a story with a classic Greek arc, about a man with a flaw (his disease) that will get him at the end. And look at him, he gave up wives and children to follow his muse.”
Woody never goes out of style. His lyrics were straightforward, he knew exactly where he stood and made sure everyone else knew, too. The tension between the ruling haves, always wanting more at the expense of everyone else, and the have-nots that Guthrie described in his most lasting songs is as true today as it ever was in the 1930s; the rapaciousness and suffering as stark as during the Great Depression. That timelessness is perhaps his enduring legacy. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, the basic questions and inequalities never change. He makes that plain, and in doing so gives us a window into the past, and understanding of the hopeless lives and broken dreams that have gone before. It’s music for the ages, as relevant five or seven centuries ago as it is now. His magic is that he articulates it perfectly.
“He can write epic ballads, amazing lyrics,” says Frank London. “And he writes simple kid’s songs, some silly, some profound. That’s why there’s such interest in him.” When the Klezmatics were given access to some of Woody’s lyric archive, he says, “We decided not to have a plan. We didn’t work together but everyone was working individually. For me, I let the lyrics talk to me, to be in dialogue with them and see how they went. The obvious preconception would be a country song, or as we’re The Klezmatics we should write klezmer music to the lyrics. But as a rule of thumb that didn’t apply. I put myself in the lyrics and they go to strange places.”
Few have been given access to the archive, and, London says, “We were honoured to have such a gift. The original lyrics sheets were mostly typed and in the margin Woody often painted the paper, doing artwork and adding notes and conversations. Who was he talking to? You feel like you’re in dialogue with him.”
“On the song Mermaid Avenue there’s a typed PS after the songs. He goes ‘It’s been five long years since we moved to Brooklyn. And it has been long and hard. But every street deserves its own little song.’ It adds not only a level of gravity, but also insouciance. I tried to get that into the song.”
The Klezmatics have released two albums of Guthrie lyrics. Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah is a specifically Jewish album, and, as London points out, “for such a well-known holiday there aren’t many songs about it; we added to that.” The other disc, Wonder Wheel, actually profoundly changed the group, the influence of Woody reaching out across the decades. “It leaves klezmer, it was a step forwards for the band, we’re just making music on our own terms. It was certainly a step we could never have anticipated. We have enough material for a third disc, everything is written and arranged, but not recorded. We didn’t want to do three albums like that back-to-back and become known as a Woody Guthrie band!”
The Klezmatics – Gonna Get Through from Wonder Wheel
But the highest profile opening of the lyrical vaults came with the Mermaid Avenue collaborations between singer-songwriter Billy Bragg – another spiritual child of Woody – and Wilco. Their discs (the last one appeared earlier this year) attracted a great deal of attention, and helped spark another revival of interest in Guthrie.
It began when Nora Guthrie heard Bragg sing at a Guthrie tribute concert in 1992 and gave him some of the lyrics to set to music. “Nora helped me to overcome my initial feelings of being daunted by taking on this huge icon, Bragg told Elsewhere, “because she had already worked out what she wanted to do and that was ‘The legend is over there and we’re going over here where everything is unknown. So everything you know about Woody, forget.’”
The lyrics all came from later in Guthrie’s life, after he’d settled in Brooklyn, and paint a fuller portrait of the man than the Dust Bowl balladeer of legend. To him, Woody was “on the cusp of where folk music stops being folk and became music where people know who wrote it. He was the first singer-songwriter.”
The collaborations have been illuminating, focusing on the personal even more than the political, such as Guthrie’s unrequited passion for the film star Ingrid Bergman. To some it might seem unlikely, even out of character for Woody, but it showed his different facets – many of them delightfully humorous – that have been played down over the years in favour of the protest singer.
Ingrid Bergman taken from the album Mermaid Avenue (1998), previously
unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie, set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco
“People who know about us know we’re carrying on a legacy but doing it in our own creative ways,” says Johnny Irion. “It’s genuine, but it takes a while. I remember meeting the family and talking about Woody. There are people who don’t know who Woody is, but we want them to know. We play his songs when he tells us to play them, sometimes more nights than others.”
“Things are coming full circle for our life,” Sarah Lee observes. “Earlier this year Jeff [Tweedy of Wilco] handed me a booklet for Mermaid Avenue Volume Three, with notes by Nora, and there was a picture of my Aunt Cathy, whom I never met. Woody has had such a great impact on my life and it’s overwhelming. Then, after I’d read it, we left to go to the Steinbeck Centre. Now worlds are pulling together. These people are so influential on our culture.”
That influence really can’t be overstated. This Land Is Your Land has become an unofficial anthem of sorts in the United States, a reminder of the ideal behind the country, if not the reality. The Occupy protests around the globe, people trying to take back the power that the few have grabbed, is putting some of Woody’s philosophy into action. The Okies are still with us, the dispossessed drifting and searching for a better life. And plenty of activist singers from the ‘60s understand his importance.
Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston – Hard Travelin’ taken from Longways To Travel 1944-1949 (Smithsonian Folkways)
“Jackson Browne and Graham Nash step up and say we should talk about Woody,” Irion says. “We need to have teachers, especially music teachers, talking about him. The centenary is just the beginning. What’s going to happen at two hundred? Will people even know or care? It’s up to us to share his music.”
In his life Woody encouraged people to disregard copyright and share his music. He wrote that “anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
Although, as Irion acknowledges, “Some of Guthrie’s songs are maybe not as relevant as they once were, but others go back to the moral justice humans are either born with or not. I think that will always be there. Pete Seeger said that a few years ago it all depressed him. He meant that the struggle doesn’t end, but Woody gives us the courage to keep going. The power that he has, to be able to write and move people in the moment, is a great thing. At the end of the day I think of the song he and Cisco Houston used to call There’s a Better World A Comin’; Woody gives you hope and takes away a certain amount of fear.”
Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston – There’s A Better World A Comin’
Perhaps, when everything else is considered, that’s Woody’s real legacy – his compassion. He cared about people, he wanted to articulate their sorrows, their joys, their achievements and share their pain and anger. That’s evident not only in the music he himself recorded but in all the lyrics in his archive. The songs he wrote for children display his love of them and the pleasure he took in them, and the Jewish songs explore his interest in the faith.
If he’d lived, and not been left helpless by Huntington’s Chorea, who knows what else he might have achieved. He might have ended up putting his own tunes to many of the lyrics from that archive. As it was, he still gave the world a great deal, not only his children and grandchildren, but also his spiritual offspring, and none of those have been greater than Bob Dylan. It’s a debt Dylan’s often acknowledged, but never as explicitly as in Song To Woody, one of his earliest compositions and released on his debut album in 1962, when Guthrie was still alive and Mr Zimmerman was another disciple at the feet of the ailing master.
Bob Dylan – Song To Woody from Dylan’s self-titled debut album
Without Woody there might never have been a Dylan, an Arlo, a James Taylor or all those singer-songwriters who’ve come along since. He gave a voice to many, and he still is. Perhaps it’s apt that the final word should go to his granddaughter: “I was in Sweden with my own daughter, who’s eight, and playing a place called Woody West in Gothenburg. While I was there I was introduced to the dog, Nora – the same name as my aunt and grandmother. My daughter looked around at all the pictures of Woody on the walls and said, ‘I’m getting a feeling this Woody guy is pretty popular’.”
Words: Chris Nickson
We Shall Be Free – Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry & Cisco Houston