Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 14, 2012

Woody at 100

Today, July 14, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie remains one of the most iconic and influential figures in — at least — American music. To someone of my generation, if you refer to “Woody,” we immediately know that you’re speaking of the writer of some of the most memorable songs in our American songbook.

I grew up when Bill Haley and Elvis and then the Beatles were occupying one part of the pop music scene, but another, alternate side was Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and then Peter, Paul and Mary and the Limelighters. This “folk revival” was founded on the vast trove of Woody’s writing, and, probably just as much, on his tireless activism and outspoken opposition to the oppression of working people.

If, when someone says, “Woody,” you think of an American actor who got his start in the TV series “Cheers,” or of an animated wooden toy, I would encourage you to find out something about Woody Guthrie. He grew up in some difficult circumstances, and was driven westward by the dual blows of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. He came to California and saw around him the plight of thousands of others working for little pay in harsh conditions, living in shanty towns and “Hoovervilles.” Everyone who knew him, traveled with him, played music with him or came into contact with him has a story about his tireless traveling, his willingness to go where working people were fighting back against the odds. He went from coast to coast on foot, on the rails, and influenced an entire generation of singers, songwriters and campaigners for the welfare of ordinary people.

If you don’t know his story and you read just a little, you’ll discover a great life. If you already know about him, take a minute in this anniversary year to look at a list of just a few of his hundreds of songs (thousands are still unpublished). Go to your online music resource and listen. Don’t overlook the magnificent adaptations that Billy Bragg and Wilco made from previously unpublished lyrics ┬áin the Guthrie archive (my favorite is “California Stars”).

There are innumerable tributes and observances under way in this anniversary year. What is remarkable about Woody’s legacy is that nearly all Americans carry somewhere in their memories some portion of that legacy. His music is an integral part of our lives.

I’ve driven along the Columbia River and sung his “Roll on, Columbia” with buddy Bri, one of 26 “Columbia River Songs” Woody wrote in one month for the U.S. Department of the Interior. I’ve sung his songs that range from simple folk numbers to bitter condemnations of a world run by the rich at the expense of the poor, by the powerful who crush the weak under their heel.

In the end, we’ll remember most “This Land is Your Land.” But please note that what makes this song great is that it simultaneously celebrates the beauty and greatness of the American landscape, while underpainting it with Woody’s constant awareness of and empathy with the reality of a land that seethed with untold numbers of the downtrodden:

As I was walkin'  -  I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side  .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Woody died in 1967, just 55 years old.

OK, I’ve got my guitar. Let’s all sing:

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York island

From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

Thanks, Woody.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for remembering and reminding us of some of the lesser known lyrics!

    Like


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