Happy Bastille Day! Another chance to celebrate independence. You could turn your attention to fine French wine and cheese. And for your soundtrack for the feast? Might I suggest Woody Guthrie?
Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday, and mine. I've long been fascinated by Woody Guthrie, probably ever since childhood, when I realized we shared a birthday. When I went to elementary school in the 1970's, we sang "This Land Is Your Land" far more than we sang "God Bless America." In fact, Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in direct response to "God Bless America." "This Land Is Your Land" is a much better song, but of course, I'm biased.
As elementary school children, we didn't sing the most radical verse:
"As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!"
But go here and read the rest of the lyrics, the first three verses of which we sang. Those verses are fairly radical, the idea that the land belongs to us all. I love it.
I find Guthrie fascinating as an artist. Here's a singer-songwriter who doesn't know music theory, who left behind a treasure trove of lyrics but no music written on musical staffs or chords--because he didn't know how to do it. For many of the songs that he wrote, he simply used melodies that already existed.
I think of Woody Guthrie as one of those artists who only needed 3 chords and the truth--but in fact, he said that anyone who used more than two chords is showing off. In my later years, I've wondered if he developed this mantra because he couldn't handle more than 2 chords.
I love this vision I have of Guthrie as an artist who didn't let his lack of knowledge hold him back. I love how he turned the deficits that might have held a lesser artist back into strengths. I love that he's created a whole body of work, but his most famous song is still sung by schoolchildren everywhere, and how subversive is that?
If I could create a body of poems that bring comfort and hope to activists, as well as one or two poems that everyone learns as schoolchildren, well I'd be happy with that artistic life. If I could inspire future generations the way that Guthrie did, how marvelous that would be. I could make the argument that artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the members of U2 would be different artists today, had there been no Woody Guthrie (better artists? worse? that's a subject for a different post).
Here's a Woody Guthrie quote to help you celebrate Bastille Day and the spirit of freedom, wherever it blooms. Those of you who listened to and loved The Alarm may remember Mike Peters quoting it during concerts (want to listen? see if you can find a copy of Electric Folklore Live and enjoy that soaring music one more time). Here's the Guthrie quote, which makes quite a good vision statement, for those of you still casting for one:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."