Woody Guthrie – Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection – Classic Music Review
I have some top-secret national security information I’d like to pass on to my American readers in the hope that at least one patriotic yank will be motivated to contact Bill Barr at the Department of Justice tout suite. I’m sure the ever-vigilant Mr. Barr will notify President Voldemort immediately so he can broadcast the information to the entire world via his infamous Twitter feed.
I have found the leader of the shadowy group known as Antifa!
The evidence is so painfully clear that I’m stunned that the exceptionally perceptive Mr. Barr could have missed it: Woody Guthrie adorned his guitar with the legend, “This machine kills fascists.”
Okay. I see that look on your face. Go ahead. Say it.
“But Woody Guthrie’s been dead for over fifty years.”
Yes, but they don’t know that! These guys live in an alt-universe where people are allergic to facts. Hey! Voldemort thought Frederick Douglas was still alive and kicking, doing “an amazing job” and “being recognized more and more.” He’ll dismiss questions like, “Mr. President, are you aware that Woody Guthrie died in 1967?” as “fake news” and order the Proud Boys to hunt down the anti-fascist bastard.
Distracted by their Woody Witch Hunt, the Proud Boys will forget about Election Day intimidation schemes and a record number of voters will send Voldemort into oblivion.
What a great way to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s legacy.
The richness of Woody Guthrie’s discography is grounded in the richness of his experience. With apologies to Dickie Betts, Guthrie was the ultimate Ramblin’ Man, as documented in his biography at woodyguthrie.org. During his roughly twenty-five years of adulthood, he rode the trains with other hoboes, drank and sang with the bums on Skid Row, walked and hitched his way to California along with tens of thousands of Oklahoma kinsfolk during the great Dust Bowl migration, experienced the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and during WWII served in the Army and Merchant Marine (where he survived a Nazi torpedo). In addition to songwriting, Woody produced drawings, paintings, a semi-fictional autobiography, a novel, several poems and even a pamphlet on how G.I.’s could avoid venereal disease. Along the way he hosted radio programs on both coasts, became something of a cause celèbre in New York City and had three wives and eight children. Had he not inherited the Huntington’s Disease that forced him to spend most of his last decade in hospitals, Woody would have kept right on rambling, meeting folks all across America and sharing their stories through song.
Guthrie’s music is as simple as simple gets, mainly three-chord country blues numbers with rare incursions into minor keys. As is common in folk music he borrowed and repurposed melodies from other songs. Woody Guthrie had no interest in making musical statements; he offered his listeners basic melodies in a limited range so anyone listening could sing along. The music served primarily as a frame for his poetry.
Woody’s poetry was built from everyday language, delivered in the flat, nasal twang of the lower Midwest that amplified its accessibility. Despite the superficial simplicity of the language, the poetry is surprisingly rich and expressive—he had a gift for the “turn of phrase” and knew how to tell a story. A quote I found on the Guthrie site referenced above perfectly captures Woody Guthrie’s integration of experience, music and lyrics:
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 still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– John Steinbeck
There is no question that Woody Guthrie had an enormous influence on an entire generation of folk artists, but many songsmiths working in other genres have also cited his work as inspirational—Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer. Though I abhor his rather cavalier attitude towards gun violence, such an orientation is more in line with the America I know than his socialist beliefs. No matter where you stand on firearms or politics, Woody Guthrie’s music makes for an absorbing listening experience.
Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection is a 3-CD, 57-track collector’s dream, complete with a 150-page large-format book. Serious Guthrie aficionados will appreciate the inclusion of several radio performances and six “never-heard-before original songs.” Although my usual M. O. is to review each and every song, I will spare those readers who find me more-than-a-bit on the wordy side and limit my review to the tracks I found most revealing in terms of defining what Woody Guthrie is all about.
“This Land Is Your Land” (alternate version), CD1, Track 1: Woody wrote his most familiar work in response to the Irving Berlin/Kate Smith atrocity “God Bless America,” a song that ruined many a night at the ballpark after 9/11 as fans would rise robotically in one of the frequent displays of superficial patriotism I found so annoying when I lived in the States. The initial version of the song was titled “God Blessed America” and the repeated line was “God blessed America for me,” but fortunately Woody came to his senses and left god the hell out of it. “This land was made for you and me” is a much more empowering message.
My two favorite verses evoke pictures of Woody making that long journey from the Texas Panhandle to California, his guitar slung over his back. Sometimes he had no choice but to walk, but rather than bemoan his fate, Woody embraced the opportunity with the same fervor Thoreau wrote about in “Walking.” He may have been dirty, dusty, thirsty and hungry but what Woody describes here is a spiritual experience:
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
The verse that qualifies this take as the “alternate version” likely served as one of the exhibits that led to Woody getting blacklisted during the Red Scare:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
“The commies will take away your private property” ranked right up there with “godlessness” as vital right-wing ammunition in the fight against those evil reds. Though Woody never became a card-carrying commie, he did write a column for the communist paper People’s World for several months, so I think it’s safe to assume he had read The Communist Manifesto and felt comfortable with the philosophy. Here’s what Marx & Engels had to say about private property:
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.
Hmm. That argument might have carried some weight back in the Europe of 1848, but in 1940 America, 44% of Americans owned homes . . . or at least they pretended to own homes. I can hear Woody now . . . “Most of those folks don’t own those homes . . . the banks own ’em.” If you “bought” your home with a mortgage, you don’t own dick: you bought an illusion that will go up in smoke if you lose your job and can’t pay the bills. Still, Americans have forged a strong link between homeownership and the American Dream, so advocating the abolition of private property would have been a tough sell. What’s more important is Woody’s underlying message: in a capitalist economy, the deck is always stacked in favor of the rich, and you’ll never create a society of equals as long as wealth (such as land) remains in the hands of a few.
But to state “this land is your land” seems a touch hyperbolic at first glance. Although I’m no expert on the matter, I doubt that there is any support for the validity of that assertion in the long history of property law. To truly understand what Woody Guthrie meant by “this land is your land,” you have to take into account his views on the relationship between humans and the land . . . which he conveniently explains on the next track.
“Pastures of Plenty,” CD1, Track 2: In 1941, Woody was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration to write the soundtrack for a documentary about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. Falling in love with the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Woody responded by writing twenty-six songs in a single month (later compiled as The Columbia River Songs).
Though Woody had no problem extolling the benefits of building dams for irrigation and electricity production in those pre-environmental-movement days (“Grand Coulee Dam,” also in this collection, is a marketing manager’s dream), his ability to see the bigger picture and his deeply embedded empathy for the workers led him to take some liberties with his assignment. Though the Grand Coulee Dam is mentioned in passing, “Pastures of Plenty” really deals with the lives of the migrant workforce:
It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road . . .
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well it’s North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine
The kicker comes in the last verse, where Woody makes what appears to be an astonishing assertion but in truth captures the deep relationship between self and work:
It’s always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be
‘Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free
“My land?” How is it possible that a person toiling under someone else’s thumb for a dollar a day could feel a sense of ownership? I think Woody might answer, “Because if you work the land, you become attached to the land.” In a study on farmers and place attachment conducted by Furman University, the authors argued that “Land is more than a place to grow crops; farms are locations with history, symbolic meaning, and repositories of emotion.” Though their study applied to those who owned the farms, it’s easy to make the same case for those who worked the soil and harvested the crops—even if those workers were migrant workers. As Victor Frankl established in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, purposeful work is one of three primary sources for meaning in our lives (the others are love and courage in the face of difficulty). The funny thing about human beings is that they can find purpose in almost any situation, whether it’s your typical boring job or, like Frankl, within the horrors of a concentration camp.
Woody understood the broader implications of attachment theory decades before the theory was invented. His experience working on those farms with his fellow migrants also taught him that work not only had meaning but that an honest day’s work is an act of profound dignity, no matter what your station in life.
“Riding in My Car (Car Song),” (CD 1, Track 3): In addition to songs about working-class struggles, Guthrie wrote a fair number of children’s songs, a few of which are included in this collection. This one has been covered by many a Guthrie admirer, but none come close to capturing the kid-like enthusiasm of Guthrie’s original. Exhibiting breath control worthy of Sinatra, Woody whips through the song with his virtual foot on the gas, appearing as storyteller, putt-putt engine and ah-OO-gah car horn. It’s one of those tunes that forces your puss into a smile whether you like it or not, the perfect pick-me-up if you’re having a shitty day (and we’ve all had a lot of those lately).
“So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” (CD 1, Track 6 and CD2, Track 14): There are two versions of this highly elastic song in the box set; according to the liner notes, “Guthrie re-purposed the song over the years for different causes.” The notes describe the song’s Dust Bowl origins, involving a dust storm that hit the Texas Panhandle on April 14, 1935. Woody was at home in Pampa with a group of folks and described the storm thusly: “Dust so thick it was black, the overhead light bulb looked like a cigarette.”. One of the most admirable qualities of the human spirit is to resort to gallows humor when facing imminent doom, and someone in the group offered up what became the song’s chorus:
We talked of the end of the world, and then
We’d sing a song an’ then sing it again.
We’d sit for an hour an’ not say a word,
And then these words would be heard:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
The second version is the WWII version, where soldier boys are sent off to war with the same message, straddling the line between gallows humor and uncomfortable joke. The closing verse features an acceptable example of schadenfreude, for though I consider myself a disciple of non-violence, I would amend the 7th Commandment to read “Thou shalt not kill except when a fucking Nazi is trying to kill you.”
So it won’t be long till the fascists are gone
And all of their likes are finished and done
We’ll throw the clods of dirt in their face
And walk away from that lonesome place
So long, it’s been good to know yuh
I rank Woody Guthrie #1 on my very short list of “Socialists with a Sense of Humor.”
“Pretty Boy Floyd,” CD1, Track 10: Woody bought into the Robin Hood mythology surrounding Pretty Boy Floyd hook, line and sinker, unable to separate his lifelong hatred of bankers from the truth about this sociopath. He wasn’t alone in that regard; many of his fellow Oklahomans glorified Pretty Boy because he paid the grocery bills for several families who offered him shelter when he was on the run (probably true) and for taking the time to dig through file cabinets and tear up the mortgages of poor farmers while robbing banks (total bullshit).
American farmers experienced economic depression long before the rest of the country; while them there city folks was drinkin’ bootleg likker and engagin’ in all kinds of sexual mischief during the Roaring 20’s, farmers were struggling with falling prices and mounds of debt. The bankers who foreclosed on those family farms understandably became the personification of evil; hence, bank robbers were viewed as heroes who gave the bankers their just desserts. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and other psychopaths were among those deified.
Woody conveniently dismisses the long list of Floyd’s crimes as “fake news” (“Every crime in Oklahoma/Was added to his name”); the use of the absolute term “every” tells you that Woody is not a credible source of information on the subject of Pretty Boy. I think the problem in Woody’s thinking here is that he personifies what is in truth a systemic problem. Yes, there are slimy bankers just like there are slimy car salespersons and slimy politicians, but they’re all just trying to survive in a slimy system. You can spend the rest of your days getting rid of slimeballs, but if you don’t change the system, you’re just going to get more slimeballs. Given that Woody studied communism—which on paper is all about changing the system—this is a very curious blind spot.
Misguided reinterpretation of history aside, Woody does manage to save the song in the end when he exposes the immorality of predatory lending and by extension, the moral vacuum of capitalism. There is no such thing as “doing the right thing” when profit is the end-all, be-all:
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
“The Sinking of the Reuben James,” CD1, Track 13: Though Guthrie didn’t produce a solo recording of this song until 1944, its composition is properly attributed to the Almanac Singers, who performed the song at Sunday night hootenannies shortly after the tragic event in November 1941. The Almanac Singers were a somewhat loosely connected group of left-wing musicians associated with the Popular Front, an equally-loosely connected combination of various left-wing groups, including the Communist Party. At the time the song was written, they were in a sort of rebranding mode, shifting from total opposition to American involvement in WWII to a down-with-the-fascists, anti-racist, pro-union orientation.
The problem with the American left has always been and will always be the inability to organize in ways that the average person can understand.
Anyway, Woody came up with the song, borrowing the melody from the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.” Originally he wanted to “name all of the dead soldiers he found listed in the newspaper” (liner notes). His fellow Almanacs (including Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell) talked him out of it and Lampell added the more patriotic closing verse. While I fully understand Woody’s desire to recognize the dead sailors as individual human beings, his heartfelt mourning comes through with moving clarity in every rendition of the chorus:
Tell me what was their names, tell me what was their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?
What was their names, tell me, what was their names?
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James
The lyrics at woodyguthrie.org are altered to present the proper verb tense, but to my ears, “What was their names?” carries greater emotional impact.
“Jesus Christ,” CD1, Track 14: When I was growing up, my agnostic parents encouraged me to read the texts of all the major religions as well as a few in the minor leagues, like Zoroastrianism and Wicca. They also encouraged me to attend services and make my own decision about my religious beliefs. I did so and concluded that religion would have no place in my life, for a variety of reasons: sexism, homophobia, the whole “fear of god” thing, endless contradictions within the texts and a general disconnection between what the texts say and how various religious leaders and organizations implement the practice.
Disclosure complete, I will say this: Woody Guthrie’s interpretation of Christianity is the only interpretation of the Christian faith that makes any sense to me:
Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave
He said to the rich, “Give your goods to the poor,”
So they laid Jesus Christ in His grave
It’s really that simple, isn’t it? Prosperity Gospel, my ass. All those preachers in their thousand-dollar suits, the obscene wealth of the Vatican, the endless passing of the collection plate . . . bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. For those who didn’t get it through his interpretation of the crucifixion, Woody attempts to enlighten the masses by transporting Jesus into the 20th century:
This song was made in New York City
Of the rich man’s (sic), preachers, and slaves
If Jesus was to preach like He preached in Galilee,
They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.
Woody sings this song with unusual intensity; his voice actually trembles with righteous insistence. It’s a compelling performance with a typically compelling Guthrie message.
“Hard, Ain’t It Hard,” CD1, Track 18: This is one of several tracks that feature Woody and his pal Cisco Houston, who handled guitar and the high harmony parts, leaving Woody free (in this case) to add a touch of mandolin to the mix. I love the way the voices of the two men meld and love their out-of-sync phrasing even more. The song is based on a folk tune called “The Butcher Boy,” which was itself based on a set of similar tales sung in Jolly Olde England about a woman wronged by her no-good son-of-a-bitch lover. In the original, she offs herself, but Woody, taking on the woman’s role, isn’t having it:
First time I seen my true love
He was walkin’ by my door.
The last time I saw his false-hearted smile
He was dead on his (garbled) floors
It’s a-hard and it’s hard, ain’t it hard
To love one that never did love you?
It’s a-hard, and it’s hard, ain’t it hard, great God,
To love one that never will be true?
The shift to the instrumental section is poorly executed, probably because Woody had to put the guitar aside and pick up the mandolin while the tape was running. I find that moment (combined with the scratchy audio) utterly charming.
“Why, Oh Why?” (CD1, Track 22): My favorite Woody Guthrie children’s song was written for his daughter Cathy Ann, who would have been no more than three years old at the time of the recording. A precocious little lass, we find Cathy peppering her father with questions about all kinds of things, and Woody plays along, no matter how absurd the question may have seemed. “Why can’t a dish break a hammer?” “Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?” “Why ain’t my grandpa my grandma?” “Why couldn’t the wind blow backwards?” Little children are highly imaginative creatures, experts at what Ken Robinson called “divergent thinking,” largely because they haven’t had their minds restrained by the educational system and its emphasis on right answer/wrong answer. Unrestrained, Cathy lets her curiosity run free, and while most parents would try to place limits on that curiosity, Woody finds his daughter endlessly fascinating.
Two verses stand out. The first occurs when little Cathy isn’t happy with her daddy’s answers:
Why don’t you answer my questions?
Why, oh why, oh why?
‘Cause I don’t know the answers.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
That’s a great answer. Most parents would either yell at the kid to leave them the hell alone or concoct a pile of bullshit because in their role as parents, they think they’re expected to know everything. Woody may have roamed and rambled a bit too much to qualify as Parent of the Year, but it’s obvious that he treats Cathy’s questions with respect. The repeated line “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” isn’t delivered in a tone of exasperation, but with affection and a bit of a chuckle.
The second standout comes when Cathy asks the all-important question, “Why can’t a rabbit chase an eagle?” Woody ignores the song structure entirely and gives a long rambling answer without taking a breath:
‘Cause the last rabbit that took out and chased after an eagle didn’t come out so good and that’s why rabbits don’t chase after eagles that’s all I know about rabbits and eagles . . . Because, because, because.
There’s only one verse where I think Woody may be guilty of putting words in Cathy’s mouth: “What makes the landlord take money?” I forgive him because his answer, “I don’t know that one myself,” avoids the temptation to make a political statement that would have spoiled the fun.
“I’ve Got to Know,” CD1, Track 23: Woody’s peak years coincided with WWII and its immediate aftermath; by the late 1940s his health problems began to take their toll, and he recorded relatively little thereafter. “I’ve Got to Know” dates from sometime in 1951, and the collection’s compilers were spot-on when they noted, “Had Woody recorded it during his prime, the song would have probably become one of his best-known pieces.”
You can tell that Woody was struggling with his motor skills and memory; sometimes his fingers refused to behave in the way he intended; occasionally he forgets the words and doesn’t do a very good job of covering it up. His voice lacks its usual assertiveness but in the context of the song, where he plays an Everyman beaten down by man’s inhumanity to man, he couldn’t have chosen a more effective tone, one that combines the humility of the workingman with a plaintive request for understanding.
During the war, Woody had written the highly optimistic “Better World A-Comin'” (also in this collection), where he shared his faith “that the fight against fascism worldwide would lead to all unions, races, and creeds fighting together. They hoped that their struggle would bring greater equality for all people in a new post-war world.” (liner notes). Six years after the war, he had every right to feel disillusionment: new wars replaced old wars, racism returned with a vengeance, the Taft-Hartley Act restricted the power of the unions to organize and the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted Woody and many of his artistic companions.
There was no better world a-comin’ after all.
That realization led Woody to structure the song as a summary of the preceding twenty years of depression and war as opposed to the before/after song he probably hoped to write. The chorus that opens the song not only recalls those dark days of the Great Depression but the simple fact that our world has never completely resolved the problem of famine and hunger:
I’ve got to know, yes, I’ve got to know, friend;
Hungry lips ask me wherever I go
Comrades and friends all falling around me
I’ve got to know, yes, I’ve got to know.
Each verse ends with a variant of that last line: “I’ve got to know, yes, I’ve got to know.” The first two verses question the whys of war, with the most penetrating question appearing in the third line of verse two:
Why do your war boats ride on my waters?
Why do your death bombs fall down from my skies?
Why do you burn my farm and my town down?
I’ve got to know, friend, I’ve got to know
What makes your boats haul death to my people?
Nitro blockbusters, big cannons and guns?
Why doesn’t your ship bring food and some clothing?
I’ve got to know, folks, I’ve got to know
Woody then moves on to the economic deprivation suffered by the lower classes and the right-wing attack on the equalizing power of unionization. While the worker slaves away, the “entrepreneur” pockets most of the profits and ensures his safety behind the locked gates of his estate:
What good work did you do, sir, I’d like to ask you,
To give you my money right out of my hands?
I built your big house here to hide from my people,
Why did you hide so, I’d like to know
You keep me in jail and you lock me in prison,
Your hospital’s jammed and your crazyhouse full,
What made your cop kill my trade union worker?
You’ll hafta talk plain ’cause I sure have to know
Why can’t I get work and cash a big paycheck?
Why can’t I buy things in your place and your store?
Why do you close my plant down (and starve all my buddies)?
I’m asking you, man, ’cause I’ve sure got to know
The phrase in parentheses apparently slipped Woody’s mind during the recording session but is part of the “official text” on woodyguthrie.org. I also removed the exclamation points that appear after each “I’ve got to know” line because they do not reflect Woody’s tone of despair and puzzlement. “I’ve Got to Know” is a deeply moving piece, but also a deeply frustrating piece because we know the answers to Woody’s questions: these things happen because money is power and people in power care more about holding onto that power than they care about the suffering and devastation caused by their senseless greed.
“Talking Centralia, CD2, Track 4“: Woody was the master of the talking song, creating several sophisticated compositions characterized by ironic humor and satiric thrusts, humanizing his stories by assuming the role of Everyman. Though “Talking Centralia” deals with a mine explosion that killed 111 people, we only learn of the disaster two-thirds of the way into the song—it’s clear that Woody wanted us to get to know the people in the story before getting into the gory details.
First, we learn something about the narrator (“just a miner in a mining town”)—his struggle with morning grogginess (“Dropped my hot coffee to start my day”), how his wife makes his breakfast “in her stocking feet” and how he kisses the kids as they doze in their beds before heading off for work. As he walks to the mine, “just thinking and wondering, wondering and thinking,” he dreams of quitting the mine someday, hoping to “sleep ’bout a week” before steeling himself for the day ahead with a detour into fantasy land:
Dream myself up a lot of pretty dreams
About pretty mine holes and pretty mine bosses
And pretty mine owners and pretty women all over the place
Speaking of the Everyman character, those dreams are pretty much the dreams of every man I’ve ever known.
Our miner then takes some time telling us about his co-workers and what’s going through their heads as they enter and work the mines. Don’t be fooled by the vernacular—this is concrete poetry of the highest order, language that immerses you in the mining experience, evoking dismay and empathy for the miners’ plight:
Most men don’t talk what’s eatin’ on their minds
About different ways of dying down here in the mines
But every morning we walk along and joke
About the mines caving in, the dust and the smoke
And one little wild spark of fire
Blowing us sky high and crooked
One little spark blowing us cross-eyed and crazy
Up to shake hands with all the Lord’s little angels
Well, I knock at the gate and stand and laugh
And the elevator man drops us down his shaft
We scatter and kneel and crawl different places
With fumes in our eyes and dust on our faces
Gas on our stomach and water on our kneecap,
Aches and pains and rheumatism, all kinds of crazy pictures flying through our heads
When the narrator finally arrives at the point of disaster, there is no change in his tone or his phrasing—nothing that would indicate something out of the ordinary:
Well, a spark did hit us in the number five
I don’t know if anybody ever did come out alive
I got carried out with a busted head
The lady said there’s a hundred and eleven was dead
The next verse explains his stoicism:
Well, this ain’t my first explosion
I come through two cave-ins and two more fires before this one
Twenty-two dead down in Ohio and thirty-six I seen in Kentucky laid up
And a hundred and eleven here in Centralia
The narrator wraps up the story and then starts to wonder if things would be different if “a big explosion of some kind was to go off up there in them Congress walls.” Woody’s best and most trenchant attacks on the status quo were directed at those in the political class who disconnected themselves from the day-to-day struggles of working people—a crisis in democracy that still exists today, one that results in consistently low approval ratings for Congress, whose members then yawn, shrug their shoulders, vote themselves a pay increase and spend most of their time raising money for re-election.
“1913 Massacre,” CD 2, Track 5 and “Ludlow Massacre,” CD2, Track 17: The collection contains these two massacre songs involving labor strife, both retellings of accounts featured in labor activist Mother Bloor’s book, We Are Many. In both instances, Woody confirms his status as a master storyteller by first letting us get to know the living, breathing people who would lose their lives to hatred-fueled violence. Here are the first three verses of “1913 Massacre”:
Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I’ll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
I will take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I will let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.
You ask about work and you ask about pay,
They’ll tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Working the copper claims, risking their lives,
So it’s fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.
A few verses later, seventy-three children are trampled to death after one of the “copper boss thugs” yelled “Fire!” In “The Ludlow Massacre,” which occurred less than a year after the tragedy at Italian Hall, the violence is initiated by the National Guard:
That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.
You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.
Both are deeply disturbing accounts that spark feelings of justifiable outrage even decades after the fact, in large part due to Woody’s ability to shape a narrative, humanize the victims and ground the tale in you-are-there imagery.
Though we’ve certainly had our share of disasters in our time, contemporary songwriters have devoted little attention to those disasters, and when they have, they fall far short of achieving the impact of a Woody Guthrie song. Here are a couple of verses from Melissa Etheridge’s song “Pulse,” a song written after the horrific mass shooting at that Orlando nightclub:
I dream in a world that wants my soul
That tells me if I hate I can control
But I don’t believe it
I cannot conceive it
Because everybody’s got a pulse
I am human, I am love
And my heart beats with my blood
Love will always win
Underneath the skin
Everybody’s got a pulse
Once again I hang my head to cry
I can’t find the reason why they died
We will find the answer
Blowing in the wind
That everybody’s got a pulse
No context, no sounds of assault rifles, no guys cowering in fear and crying in the men’s room, no blood, no screams in the darkness . . . just abstract sentiments that might move you to “Yeah, it’s too bad what happened” and little further. I’m sure Melissa’s heart was in the right place, but sentiment never changed a goddamn thing.
“We Shall Be Free,” CD2, Track 22: This “free-form session,” one of several Woody recorded with Cisco, Lead Belly and Sonny Terry, is an absolute hoot! While the boys start off in tentative fashion, after Lead Belly injects some energy into the proceedings during his first turn at the mike, it’s party time! Woody and Lead Belly take turns on the verses, each followed by a chorus that gets (I’m going make up a word now) rousinger and rousinger each time around, as if the boys are passing the hip flask while they sing. It also helps that the song is half-spiritual and half-sexual, for in my book, spiritual and sexual are the same fucking thing.
Sadly, the only characters to get any in this song are a rooster and a hog.
“I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore), CD 3, Track 1”: The third disc consists of previously unreleased tracks, snippets from American radio programs and a recording of Woody’s visit to the BBC radio studios in 1944, a journey he made shortly after that torpedo almost shuffled him off this mortal coil.
Wow. If I’d almost gotten whacked by a torpedo, I would have rushed to the nearest pub and stayed there until the introduction of the commercial jet, sometime in the 1950s.
This is a modification of the more religious Carter Family number, “I Can’t Find a Home in This World Anymore.” The liner notes explain Guthrie’s modifications as follows:
Of this song, Guthrie said: “This old song to start out with was a religious piece called ‘I Can’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.’ But I seen there was another side to the picture. Reason why you can’t feel at home in this world anymore is mostly because you ain’t got no home to feel at” (Lomax 1967, 64)
So very true today . . . for migrants on boats desperate to get to Europe, for people living on minimum wage, for the many who lost their jobs in the pandemic. As this song was written and recorded in the Los Angeles of 1937, Woody’s story concerns the Dust Bowl migrants. The most compelling segment in this version occurs when Woody abandons the verse structure and talks in plain language to the folks listening on radios in their tents or huddled in their beat-up jalopies:
How many a workin’ man is nothing but a slave
A slave he’ll be til they lay him in his grave
You pray in your church and you beg at a rich man’s door
And you ain’t got no home in this world anymore
Yes, sir, you know that’s sure the truth, purt near everywhere you go, a-riding freight trains ‘round over the country, see folks a-stranded alongside of the road, don’t know where they’re going, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they’d like to do their part to keep the old world going but they ain’t got no home in the world anymore
And what do most people do when they see the homeless today? Look the other way. Step over them. Demand that the cops get them the hell out of there, the goddamned losers. “There but for fortune go you or I” seems to be a lesson that most choose to ignore.
I hope that my truncated analysis of Woody at 100 did justice to his memory and will encourage readers to explore Woody Guthrie’s catalog in more depth. It’s killing me not to discuss some of his classic songs like “Worried Man Blues,” “Hangknot, Slipnot,” “Two Good Men,” and “The Ranger’s Command,” but I will point out that all those songs are part of the collection in addition to all the goodies on CD3.
In closing, I have to say that part of what motivated me to write this review (in addition to filling a huge hole in the history) is that I sense that Woody Guthrie’s legacy may not outlive the Baby Boomers. I haven’t sensed much interest in his work among my fellow millennials (who really aren’t all that interested in history, period) and it would be a tragedy of immense proportions if Woody Guthrie’s work is forgotten. Consider this review a “tiny ripple of hope” message to my generational peers that they listen, learn and take to heart Woody Guthrie’s work so that his status as one of the great American poets is forever preserved.