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.
Regular readers may remember that at this time last year both Dad and I had taken a rain check on Major League Baseball because it was depressing to watch anything of American origin with the country going down the fascist-racist path.
The George Floyd protests gave my dear father hope that the American people had finally come to their senses and that real change was in the air. Concurrently with those protests, polls also showed Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Voldemort and that the Democrats had a real shot at taking the Senate and booting Voldemort’s partner-in-crime-and-corruption, Mitch McConnell, out of the all-powerful majority leader role. And wild-eyed optimist that he is, Dad saw the visible support of professional athletes on behalf of the BLM protests as another sign that the United States had finally turned things around . . . and a great excuse for tuning in truncated MLB season and the NBA playoffs.
Note that his daughter does not share his optimism. Biden could be leading by 30 points and it wouldn’t matter. The COVID-19 numbers combined with Voldemort’s approval rating tell me that 40 percent of Americans think he’s doing a helluva job, and that’s more than enough cover for either another stolen election or a Reichstag fire coupled with a state-of-emergency suspension of all civil rights. Since I don’t think the fat fuck can physically survive for long, I fully expect Ivanka to be running the country sometime in 2021.
Still pretty sour on my former homeland (though I go through spurts when I can’t help but tune into the horror show called “news”), I initially refused my father’s invitations to come over and watch some baseball after I returned from vacation. But dad has a way of wearing me down and I finally agreed to watch the Giants-Dodgers matchup scheduled for August 26 (which we would watch via DVR on the 27th). Giants-Dodgers games were always the most intense, (even when the Giants sucked, as they do now), so I thought it might be fun to indulge in nostalgia.
“Sorry, Sunshine—game canceled.”
“What? In August? In California? There can’t be any wildfires that close to the Bay! Coronavirus?”
“No—I guess you haven’t heard the latest. The cops shot another black man in the back.”
“Both teams decided not to play in protest of the shooting.”
For a moment I was stunned that the Giants and Dodgers could be on the same side under any circumstances, but after my brain had time to process the news, I said, “That is fucking awesome!”
“It’s happening, sunshine. People aren’t putting up with this shit anymore. Protesting works.”
“Spoken like a true son of the 60s. But whether it works or not, I’m glad they did what they did. Maybe it will sink in somewhere down the line, but . . .”
“Hey. How’s that review of Freewheelin‘ you promised me? Maybe that will rescue you from your cynicism.”
“Haven’t started it yet. And by the way, cynicism is just a manifestation of frustrated idealism. I long for a better world but I don’t think most people give a shit—hence, cynicism.”
“Well, let’s see how you feel after Freewheelin’. May young Bob heal your soul.”
Bob Dylan’s first album sold so poorly that there was talk at Columbia about dropping him. Fortunately for posterity, John Hammond’s voice still carried a lot of weight, and with additional support from Johnny Cash, he managed to convince the nay-sayers that Dylan deserved another shot.
While Dylan’s début featured only two original compositions (both revealing the influence of Woody Guthrie), in the months that followed he found his muse and his voice. The muse in question was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by the name of Suze Rotolo; you can see her “smile that could light up a street full of people” (according to Dylan) on the album cover. There is no question that his relationship with Suze motivated Dylan to shift his songwriting attention to more topical subjects involving culture and politics, but Dylan’s embrace of Woody Guthrie had already predisposed him to follow that path.
What’s important is what he admired about Guthrie: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Some protest songs are satirical, others paint the ugly truth with a grim brush, but some of the greatest protest songs express deep empathy from those suffering from injustice. Sometimes that empathy is captured in the lyrics (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune”); sometimes it’s captured in the singer’s interpretation (Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” at Carnegie Hall). The fact that Dylan identified with Guthrie’s empathy meant he was capable of empathy himself . . . he just needed to let it come to the surface in his own compositions.
Dylan covers all the bases on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: the satiric, the bleak, the empathetic, the absurd and the self-pitying. This is the folk version of Bob Dylan; most of the songs are just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. After listening to the layered and heavily processed recordings of the Beach Boys and immersing myself in the complex tunings and noise rock of Sonic Youth (review coming soon), I have to say that the sheer simplicity of the album was refreshing, reminding me that sometimes a simple arrangement of voice and guitar can have more power than a symphony orchestra or the loudest amp stacks.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”: What can be said about a song that is familiar all over the world, a song that people know so well that they’ve forgotten its meaning and sing it in rote like they do “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Quite a lot, actually. One sure-fire test of determining whether or not a creative effort qualifies as art is timelessness, and “Blowin in the Wind” is unfortunately timeless . . . depending on your sense of morality.
Dylan’s version is as simple as simple gets: a three-chord guitar song in I-IV-V mode. It might have been one of the first songs you learned when you were trying to get your head and fingers around the guitar. The popular version by Peter, Paul & Mary is more elaborate, with the choral melody established in the guitar intro and the emphatic shift to the V chord in the verse lines where Dylan returns to the root. PP&M also added a complementary minor chord that provides a pointed note of sadness. Placing them both in the same key for comparison, Dylan’s version is G-C-D and PP&M’s G-C-D7-Em. Easy peasy.
Dylan sings in a voice characterized by weariness and sadness, generally allowing the words to speak for themselves. PP&M made more extensive use of different dynamics (soft-LOUD) and Mary Travers’ heartfelt passion comes through loud and clear above the harmonies. Both versions work, confirming the truth that great songs allow for multiple interpretations. I think the difference between the two is that Mary Travers’ approach comes across as advocacy, a call to action, whereas Bob Dylan’s take is as an expression of empathy, a call to reflect on the suffering of the disadvantaged. The line “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is clearly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and the weariness in Bob’s voice reflects the weariness of African-Americans who at that time had waited a century to achieve true emancipation. What’s truly remarkable is that this is Bob Dylan at twenty-one, fresh from the prairie, having spent most of his life in an area of the country where the population is as white as the winter snow, writing a song that captured “the infinite sweep of humanity.”
I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a beautiful and moving song . . . and I find it intensely frustrating. I feel the same way about “We Shall Overcome”— I resist the “someday” in that song as much as I resist “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” I want the answers to the rhetorical questions posed in the song to be expressed with crystal clarity. End war. Eliminate injustice. Give everyone the freedom to live their lives to their fullest potential. Transform the waste of hatred and fear into love and respect. Stop fucking around and do it now.
When “Blowin’ in the Wind” was published in the now-defunct folk journal Sing Out!, Dylan added some commentary about the meaning of the song. One statement stood out for me: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” The corresponding line in the song is “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
I thought about that comment a lot and came to the conclusion that it no longer applies to the United States. The people in the Trump administration don’t think separating children from their parents and putting them in cages is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think using the power of their offices to enrich themselves is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think . . . well, let’s skip down to the last verse:
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
Narcissistic sociopaths can’t feel empathy, so the first question is moot. As for the second question, apparently 183,000 dead Americans (as of today) isn’t enough for Trump and the GOP. It is what it is.
The timelessness of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is dependent on listeners having a certain amount of moral fiber. The song fails the timelessness test in a post-morality, post-truth universe.
“Girl from the North Country”: When young Bob visited the UK, he hooked up with legendary folk artist Martin Carthy and learned a few tunes, including the song we know as “Scarborough Fair.” Bob borrowed some bits (plagiarism doesn’t apply to songs in the public domain) to tell a tale of love long past. As is usually the case with the gossip-obsessed music press, there was a lot of speculation about which of three former Dylan lovers was the girl in the song, to which I respond, “WHO GIVES A SHIT?”
The song is bookended by the “she once was a true love of mine” verses we all know, with the more interesting differentiation contained in the three middle stanzas. Bob is obviously describing a scene that took place in his northern Minnesota days (I’ve never heard of New York City referred to as “the north country”) and he paints a vivid picture of a memory that he carried with him to Greenwich Village:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair’s hangin’ long,
That’s the way I remember her best.
Men—always looking at the tits. I’m glad he cut off the verse before launching into a paean about her Minnesota-winter rock-hard nipples.
Seriously, this is a lovely little song and Bob sings it with tender feeling.
“Masters of War”: After that charming little interlude it’s back to the heavy stuff, and Dylan pulls no punches in this all-out attack on the merchants of death who profit from mass misery. Like “Girl from the North Country,” the tune is from an English folk song (“Nottamun Town”). I suppose you could say the two songs share similar themes, as both describe manifestations of insanity (though “Nottamun Town” is far more absurdist and has nothing to do with war). While I completely agree with Dylan’s attack on immoral beings who profit from meaningless death, I think it was a mistake to shape the song as a direct challenge, because a.) they’re never going to listen, b.) they don’t give a shit about saving their souls, only their profits and c.) it sounds more like an angry rant of one individual instead of a clarion call to join with the singer to end the travesty of profitable war. The last verse is really bitter (much like a few Woody Guthrie songs directed at the fascists):
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead
Oh, Bobby, try another tack. He’ll just be replaced by another greedy, ghoulish asshole.
“Down the Highway”: This is a little highway-and-suitcase-in-my-hand 12-bar blues featuring some energetic strumming as Dylan longs for Suze Rotolo, who had left New York for a while to study in Italy. The last lines “From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty” are pure Guthrie. The song isn’t particularly memorable, but don’t worry—there’s a better song about his shaky relationship with Suze a few tracks down the highway.
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”: This not-much-of-song has some value as background material concerning Dylan’s self-image and fetishes (not the fun, naughty kind but standard neurotic obsessions). He depicts himself in boots, ready for the day a few years down the road when his boot heels will feel like wanderin’. The fetish is one he shares with Woody Guthrie: the outlaw armed with a six-shooter.
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me?
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Guthrie’s catalog is peppered with songs about greedy, cold-hearted banks (villains) and bank robbers (heroes). In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he defended the murderer as a friend to the poor, crediting Floyd with paying off the mortgages of struggling farmers and buying Christmas dinners for families on relief. Dylan also expressed his admiration for sociopaths like Floyd, Billy the Kid, and of course, John Wesley Hardin (no g)—the mythical rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the poor crowd.
I will never understand the American fetish with guns, nor the romance attached to the outlaw.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: Dylan adopted the question/answer format of “Lord Randall” (Roud 10, Child 12), an old border song dramatizing a conversation between mother and son where sonny boy eventually discloses he is about to croak off because his (lover, stepmother, or other mom-competitor) poisoned his fish soup.
Dylan’s tale is equally dark but far richer than an already-solved murder mystery. He described the sentiments that drove him to compose “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thusly: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The song is NOT about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dylan wrote it a month before that seminal event). Dylan explained it on the album liner notes: “‘Hard Rain’ is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
Hell, he could have thrown the Cuban Missile Crisis in there had he known about it, as the song is about the perpetual low-grade fever the human race has suffered from since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Living on the edge of imminent doom has shaped human consciousness for decades; the world continues to move from crisis to crisis, from one unsolvable problem to another, and we’re always waiting for the next hammer to drop. We’re addicted to bad news, which is why the media focuses on all the awful stuff rather than any of the good stuff. Addicts need their daily fix; encouraging addiction is profitable. The hard rain is not fallout rain, but the sense that “something big is coming”—symbolic of the dread we live with every day.
Bob Dylan understood that, and in an interview with Studs Terkel way back in 1963—long before the advent of news-as-entertainment and the blurring of fact and opinion—he commented, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
Fox News, anyone? Again, try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The poem is structured around verses that begin with five different questions:
- Where have you been?
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- Who did you meet?
- What’ll you do now?
The “Where Have You Been” question sets the scene by taking us on a tour through a world suffering from environmental damage and non-stop war: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” When mother asks the young man what he saw, the images come to life in all their ugliness—lynching, people working their fingers down to the bone, the lack of a safety net, the inability to communicate, the not-so-harmless toys that program children to believe that violence is not a bad thing:
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
“What did you hear?” elicits a similar list of horrors, this time focused on human callousness:
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
“Who did you meet?” results in more surreal responses. “I met a young woman whose body was burning” might refer to witchcraft and J. Edgar’s communist witch hunts. “I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow” is easily the most hopeful line in the song. The two lines that grab me synthesize the truth of opposites, existential pain and the general sense of feeling wounded by life itself:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
That last question was posed in similar fashion by Joe Strummer in “Clampdown”—“What are we gonna do now?” Dylan ends the song with a deeply-felt personal commitment to shine a bright light on the ugliness and devote his efforts to truth-telling, the only way out of the mess we created for ourselves:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
You know, when I started this blog I really didn’t think all that much of Bob Dylan. I hereby offer the universe my heartfelt apology (at least up to but not including Blonde on Blonde).
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”: The only self-help book I ever read that was worth a damn is Messages: The Communication Skills Book by McKay, Davis and Fanning (not a law firm). In the chapter covering Expression, they talk about a common phenomenon called “contaminated messages.”
Contamination takes place when your messages are mixed or mislabeled . . . Contaminated messages are at best confusing and at worst deeply alienating . . . Contaminated messages differ from partial messages in that the problem is not merely one of omission. You haven’t left the anger, the conclusion or the need out of it. It’s there all right, but in a disguised and covert form . . . The easiest way to contaminate your messages is to make the content simple and straightforward, but say it in a tone of voice that betrays your feelings.
—McKay, Davis and Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 1995, Oakland CA
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” is one big fat contaminated message. We’re talking criminal-level contamination here.
Despite the high toxicity levels, Dylan had a point when he wrote in the liner notes, “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Dylan captured all the things we’d like to say after an episode of betrayal or abandonment. Sometimes we get over the hurt and approach the conversation in a more civilized manner; sometimes we just let it fucking rip. The closing lines are pure contaminated genius:
I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The song’s melody is borrowed from a song in the public domain, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” Dylan learned that tune from a guy named Paul Clayton who wrote an updated version called “Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone?”). Neither comes close to Dylan’s masterpiece of self-pitying sarcasm nor expresses the weird, fleeting delight when we tell someone to go fuck themselves.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”: Here Dylan borrows the melody and a couple of lines from yet another old folk ballad of uncertain origin (Ireland, Scotland or Canada, take your pick), “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” Lady Franklin lost her husband to that fruitless search for the Northwest Passage; Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of dear friends from his youth, “And each one I’ve never seen again.” Of all the songs written about the lost years of adolescence, this is one of the more touching and least sentimental:
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I’d spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
BTW, my favorite lost youth song comes from another Guthrie disciple: “912 Greens” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I really need to do Young Brigham.
“Oxford Town”: I haven’t written about this, but over the last few years I’ve read dozens of books on American history, largely to answer the nagging question, “What the fuck happened to my homeland?” The unfortunate answer turned out to be “Nothing.” The USA has been a white supremacist state since its founding and has made astonishingly little progress over a period of two centuries.
Dylan actually wrote the song in response to an invitation by the leftist-labor folk music mag Broadside encouraging songwriters to submit works related to the Ole Miss riots that accompanied the efforts to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Phil Ochs also submitted his take, “The Ballad of Oxford.”
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, the invitation did not involve any kind of contest. Phil’s you-are-there narrative and no-holds-barred language would have crushed “Oxford Town.”
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”: Dylan’s maiden attempt at a Woody Guthrie-style “talkin’ song” was allegedly created spontaneously in the studio at the end of Freewheelin’ sessions. I have no reason to doubt that—the story lacks both punch and punch lines. The best verse involves sex, for not even a nuclear holocaust can still the flow of testosterone:
Well, I spied me a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumthin’
You see what happened last time they started”
“Corrina, Corrina”: This old blues-folk number has appeared in various permutations throughout the years; Dylan brought it into the Folk Revival by borrowing the melody and a line or two from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” A full band appears in this piece, suitably muffled in keeping with the folk norms Dylan would smash at Newport a few years into the future.
I’ll take Dylan’s gentle, loping version over the Ray Peterson-Phil Spector melodrama any time.
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”: Dylan gets partial songwriting credit for his modification of this Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas number that dates back to the late 1920s. Thomas is also responsible for Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Fishin’ Blues” and helping Taj Mahal fill out his sets. Pretty good for a guy who only spent three years in the music business. All I can say about Dylan’s performance in this song is that he sounds unusually exuberant and exuberance really doesn’t work for Bob Dylan.
“I Shall Be Free”: Freewheelin’ ends with yet another adaptation, this one following a path from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. It’s essentially another talkin’ song that repeats some of the earthier testosterone-driven themes covered in “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” This time he chases a woman up a hill in the middle of an air-raid and has an interesting conversation with JFK:
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?
I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
I compliment both men on their excellent taste in broads, but alas, JFK only bonked one of the three (Ms. Ekberg). Some critics hated the song for being too lightweight, but I found the song a bit more humorous than “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
Revisiting my father’s wish, Freewheelin’ didn’t exactly heal my cynical soul, but it’s always uplifting to find someone out there who validates one’s sense of right and wrong. I still think America is hell-bent on self-destruction, and recent developments confirm that belief.
I’ve always thought that American socialists were some of the dumbest people in the world, and now they’re proving it by inciting violence and destroying property, playing right into Voldemort’s evil designs. White supremacist brownshirts are asserting themselves, strengthened by presidential-level support. The GOP has spent decades perfecting the art of using fear to win elections—and if fear doesn’t entirely do the trick, they have the power to suppress voting and no compunction whatsoever when it comes to cheating.
I don’t have sufficient readership to have an impact on the outcome of the election, but if any of you reading this could remind the lame-brained violent lefties you happen to run into that violence is always counter-productive, I’d appreciate it. To help you soothe any feelings you may hurt in the process, give them this bonus gift of a mantra they can use to help them behave like rational human beings:
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”