One hundred years ago today, Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma. His early years were dicey: born into a middle-class family that was about to become much poorer as the nation plunged into the Great Depression with a mother who was mentally unstable because of Huntington's disease. Soon, he was on his own.
He travelled the country, often by jumping on trains. I tend to romanticize those journeys and forget about how dangerous they were. I'm influenced by the amazing songs that came out of those travels. But if we're brutally honest, it's amazing that Woody Guthrie survived those journeys and was able to create art.
Many of his fellow travellers died. The hobo lifestyle exposes one to all sorts of dangers beyond the basic danger of jumping on a moving train: the elements, criminals, unsavory public officials and sheriffs, hunger.
Woody Guthrie did many things in his life, but he's most famous for his songwriting. A great article on Woody Guthrie in The Washington Post reminds us: "But Guthrie’s long-term influence as a singer-songwriter can’t be overstated. 'For the folk revivalists,' Place says, 'Woody was the great folksinger, the authentic voice. He wasn’t the first to do this, but [with] the concept of the singer-songwriter, he was the really big one. Nowadays, most people who play acoustic guitar are going to play their own songs. But before Guthrie,hardly anyone was doing that.'” (Jeff Place is an archivist for the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage).
Guthrie was not what has come to be the stereotype of the morose singer-songwriter, working out relationships in song. No, Guthrie saw himself fighting injustice and preserving the lives of those society forgets or casts out. He had a sticker on his guitar that declared, "This machine kills fascists." And in some ways, he singlehandedly made great strides, dragging society along with him, in making our culture more inclusive.
It's even more amazing when you consider how little musical training he had. He couldn't read music, but that didn't stop him. He often used songs that were already in existence and changed the lyrics. In many ways, it's a brilliant technique. Not only could he remember them this way, but others could too.
A recent episode of Talk of the Nation includes this nugget: "Guthrie, you know, he consciously used older melodies - and a lot of composers have done that - so that the audience can immediately pick up on it. So you, like, start singing - you know, like the song we listened to, 'Big City Ways,' is based off a major country hit at the time called 'Brown's Ferry Blues.' So everybody who was like - who knew that song could just immediately pick up on it and sing along. And that was, you know - and people say, OK. Is that stealing? No. It's just the way that topical songs work. People wanted - well, he wanted these things to be sung by the people" (Hear or read the NPR program here).
I've often wondered if poets should be taking their cues from Woody Guthrie, if poetry might not be an endangered art form if more of us did. I've written before about sneering dismissals about poetry being accessible--but artists like Guthrie remind us of the importance of accessibility, especially if we're looking to make meaningful changes in the world.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth, is a good time to think about our own art. What do we hope to accomplish? If we championed the forgotten and the outcast, which groups would we showcase in our work? Can protest art be more beautiful and enticing than it has been? Can we be angry without being alienating?
On the hundredth anniversary of our own births, what would we hope that future scholars and historians focused upon?
The Woody Guthrie website
Another great NPR story about Woody Guthrie on Fresh Air
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