This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of the late great Woody Guthrie, who was born 100 years ago today. Guthrie was one of my earliest musical influences; my father, who worked at Dunham’s Music House, brought a charred songbook home he had salvaged after the music store burned down sometime in the mid 60s. The book was Hootenanny, and included many of Woody Guthrie’s songs, along with many of the songs of the folk revival he helped inspire. It was my first songbook when I took up guitar in the early 70s. There are a ton of Woody Guthrie songs that could be included in the songbook of freedom. I’ll choose two of my favorites to illustrate his take on the subject of liberation. The first is his most famous song, This Land is Your Land. It is the height of irony how this anthem wove its way into the fabric of public school education, as a source of pride for the American landscape. Little did we know as youngsters, when we sang the song for the thousandth time, that the writer had been a communist sympathizer, whose politics and views of liberty were forged in the fires of the dust bowl migration from Oklahoma to California, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novels. He made the move from California to New York in 1940, where he lived for a time with the actor and communist activist Will Geer. The story has it that Guthrie got tired of hearing Irving Berlin’s anthem, God Bless America, played over and over on the radio, and decided to write his own anthem, based on his experiences traveling the country. The last two verses are rarely sung by school children, but they give great insight into Guthrie’s thoughts on the blessings of freedom’s land:
A sign of the different political climate that existed before McCarthyism is evident in the next phase of Guthrie’s life. Even though he was gaining fame as an outspoken left-wing activist, the Department of the Interior hired him in the early 1940s to write songs about the Colorado River and the making of the Grand Coulee Dam. The other of my favorite Guthrie songs, Pastures of Plenty, comes from this project.
My suspicions that I married into a wonderful family are confirmed whenever I go and visit my sister-in-law Carolyn and her husband Ron, and their son Francisco. For as long as I have know them, they have kept a poster of a Woody Guthrie quote up on a wall in their home. This is Woody’s philosophy of songwriting, and speaks to the spirit of freedom he inspired and continues to inspire through his music. I’ll leave you with his words:
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.