a recent album a day listen spanned several days, because it was several discs. i listened to a different disc each day, repeating a couple of the discs so it took me a week of listening, all told.
woody guthrie was a wandering soul of great talent. he wrote, he drew and he painted. he performed on the radio. but mostly he played music.
he migrated across the country in the dust bowl era and his music became a chronicle of the things he saw. i feel silly writing a biography about him but i asked three different people today if they knew who he was and i was surprised to hear ‘no’ each time. he’s a classic american character. he’s the type of person we all ought to know something about.
he performed with pete seeger and inspired people like phil ochs and bob dylan. he is the beginning of a folk legacy that right now seems still. this is unfortunate, because we’ve got a lot we should be singing about and against.
his songs are deceptively simple. they often borrowed from various pre-existing melodies, structures and themes, but were something wholly their own. woody relished in playing the part of the country bumpkin, of the wide eyed country boy with an aw-shucks appeal whose classically structured songs advanced an intellectual savagery that was not lost on those around him. he sported a guitar that often read “this machine kills facists”.
woody plied his trade, purely on his own terms, in a time when you could strangely say a lot more ONLY if you said a lot less. that sounds paradoxical, but it’s true.
he was affiliated with certain communist groups. he sang songs that questioned who we were and what we were doing, often while in the employ of the government through things like the wpa and the grand coulee dam project. he seemed to walk and often fall off a tightrope in his personal and professional life, but he never stopped plugging away.
he really hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves, although the musical community recognizes his contribution. i’m talking about the rest of the world who haven’t embraced him yet.
his lyrics can be taken literally, and simply. and yet, when looked at closely, a lot of his lyrics are quite revolutionary in the context of their time and are revelatory about who we think we are as americans.
take the song below. written in the late 30s, it appears to be a simple song of unrequited love. but for some, it’s seen as perhaps the first note in the american gay rights movement.
the song is simple. listen for yourself, the lyrics are below. in the song, woody is talking about an unrequited love he could never express. his ‘true love’ ends up dead somewhere, after he misspent all his time with certain women. maybe it’s just from a woman’s point of view about some guy. but i am convinced that it is not. i’m convinced the song is woody’s gentlest of prodding about the fact that there were gays among us, and not just that – but that they had feelings and emotions that were valid and a true as anyone else’s.
it’s a perfect example of what woody guthrie could do:
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 and cold on the floor
there is a house in this old town,
and that’s where my true love lays around.
takes all those women right down on his knee
tells them a tale that he won’t tell me
don’t go to drinkin’ and a gamblin’,
don’t go there your sorrows to drown.
this hard-liquor place is a low-down disgrace,
the meanest damn place in this town
it’s hard and it’s hard, ain’t it hard
to love one that never did love you
it’s hard, and it’s hard, ain’t it hard, great god,
to love one that never will be true