100 years of Hard Travelling – Woody Guthrie’s Centenary
“Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. 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 a people to endure and fight against oppression.”
– John Steinbeck
There probably aren’t many people around today who ever had the chance to hear Woody Guthrie sing in person, or who got to experience what it was like to see him in action at a Hootenanny, or rally or union hall meeting. But, if Woody was alive today, he’d most likely say that it didn’t matter all that much who was singing his songs. The songs belonged to the world, and the most important thing about them was the stories they told and the way they made people feel.
There was never a lot of artifice in anything he wrote; Woody’s music was all about reaching people. He didn’t put on airs or sing about things that took place on some far away ‘rock candy mountain’ that was separate from his audience and their experiences. He always sang about men and women and their struggles in a direct way that could be easily understood. He spoke and sang in words that supported his audience, rather than talked down to them, and because of that Woody’s music still resonates with the kind of simple grace, truth and power that never goes out of style.
As Woody said, ‘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. 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. “
Just listen to one of his songs – ‘This Land Is Your Land’, ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Pastures of Plenty’, ‘Hard Travellin’’- or any of the others that you’ve probably heard more times than you can count, and you might be surprised at the powerful emotions they can stir deep inside of you.
Woody was musically unschooled, and he rendered everything with the kind of basic chords that a beginner could play. His songs aren’t pretty. Every last one of them has been kicked around, worn down and lived in. They’re rugged and true to such an extent that it boggles the mind to think that one person could have written them. With the passage of time they’ve become indelible, as if carved in rock and stone, as much a part of the earth and air as the people they were written for.
Woody Guthrie had first hand experience of all that he sang about. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912, his life was marked by struggle from the beginning. His father was constantly out of work, and his mother spent much of her adult years in a mental institution as she suffered from the Huntington’s disease that would eventually claim Woody’s own life in 1967. A series of devastating fires took his childhood home and his younger sister’s life a few years later. Restless and sensitive, Woody began to play music around the age of 14, and right from the very beginning, he had no time for romantic or tin pan alley tunes, preferring to sing about the world and people he saw around him.
While still in Oklahoma, Woody married young, made dismal attempts at farming, lost three of his children to dust bowl maladies, and had all but given up before he hit the road to scrape a living by singing his songs for food and coins. Long before he became officially acquainted with socialist and worker’s movements, he’d already sided with the common person. And common people have never had never had much control over their lives or the forces that have contributed to their suffering. And for someone like Woody, that was no good. Music was one of the few things that truly belonged to all people, and everything he wrote and sang fit right into a tradition formed by brave women and men the world over who shared their truths and never gave up or sank into silence. His songs formed a lexicon for those who would never be invited to contribute to history books or deliver the goods on the six o’clock news. For Woody, music was activism, and his guitar – scrawled with the message ‘this machine kills fascists’ – was his weapon.
As he travelled the country, Guthrie found like-minded companions. He became friends with Will Geer, Pete Seeger and other prominent agitators, and for decades almost never turned down a request to play at a meeting or rally or promote a cause that favored little people caught in a struggle against the big capitalist machines that oppressed them.
Those were heavy, fervent days, and as Bob Dylan – who regularly visited Woody in the hospital during his final years – remembers, ‘You could listen to his songs and actually learn to live.’ For many people, the torch that Guthrie passed on to Dylan and his contemporaries was enough to ensure his legacy, but of course his relevance goes way beyond that. Many of his own children and grandchildren – Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irons, and Cathy Guthrie who plays in Folk Uke– have followed in his footsteps to become memorable performers, themselves. But, Bob Dylan and the Guthrie clan are just the tip of a very large musical iceberg. A quick look back at some of the artists who have performed at the Festival over the years – Si Kahn, Leon Rosselson, Billy Bragg, Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco to name a few – reassures us that the power of a single performer sharing songs of hope, struggle and redemption is something that will never diminish or grow old. As Rambling Jack Elliot, an old friend and fellow travelling companion of Woody’s – who will also be performing at this year’s festival – said of Guthrie’s continued relevance, ‘He had a marvelous sense of words, being the great poet that he was. There was sort of an operatic sadness in his songs, although he described it in a lighthearted way, leaving it up to the listener to feel the emotions.”
Over the years, these ‘emotions’ have spread way beyond ‘this land’ and have ignited the world over. From the ghettos of Trenchtown, Jamaica where Bob Marley – whose backwoods poetry and revolutionary spirit echo Guthrie’s fire and brimstone politics more closely than any other artist has – wrote his first song, to the streets of the Tunisian Arab spring where young singers like Emel Mathlouthi have stepped forward to express the hopes and dreams of her people, the legacy of Woody Guthrie and his insistence belief in justice for all have never stopped gaining momentum.
Sure, the world has changed a lot since Woody’s years of jungle camps, hobos and dustbowl refugees, and the days of hopping trains bound to glory have long passed as they’re mostly all stowed in the yards and rusted now. Old names and faces have been exchanged for new ones, but the beaten down by hard luck, sunburned, dispossessed and broken people he championed are still with us. It was a long time ago that Woody sang ‘my brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road/it’s a hot and dusty road that ‘bout a million folks have trod’, but sadly, we know that they’re out trodding it still. And, while today’s crooks may not rob you with a six gun or a fountain pen anymore, and dust bowls, scabs and bankers have been replaced by global warming, toxic waste, and hawkers selling junk bonds and Ponzi schemes, the thugs and straw bosses are out there still, so we continue to need Woody and his songs more than ever.
Coming to the Vancouver Folk Music festival and making it an important part of your summer is perhaps the best testament to Woody Guthrie’s spirit that any of us could ever express. Gatherings like this offer us all a chance to remember the power of the simple truths, determination and optimism that his music always shared with us. For so many of us, Woody Guthrie is folk music.
So, happy 100thbirthday Woody! It’s hard to imagine this festival taking place and all of us together here today without you!
This posting originally appeared in the 35th anniversary programme booklet for the Vancouver Folk Music