Woody Guthrie is a hero of mine. He represents whatever is left inside of me that has a little peek at optimism, despite all the pain and suffering and horrible turns of government I’ve seen and experienced.
Woody lived a hard life. Essentially orphaned young from a dysfunctional family, he drifted across America singing popular tunes for nickels, an entertainer in the Populist tradition. However, after the sacrifices and hardships of his fellow Oklahomans accumulated around him like so much winter snow, Woody found his voice. Woody began to sing songs that directly embraced the economic inequality he saw among the migrant workers in California (the 99 percent of his day) and elsewhere. As his travels exposed him to new injustices, Woody’s music carried over to the needs of workers trying to organize, the anti-war sentiments preceding Pearl Harbor and more, melding into a transcendent view that America would be whole when it belonged to its people.
In answer to the pablum of “God Bless America,” Woody wrote his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land.” Despite “This Land” later devolving into a bland patriotic staple, the song’s full set of lyrics express the sum of Woody’s philosophy about the good of the common people, the need to flatten out the economy so while the rich may still get the most, the poor get more than just some. In a land of such abundance, there is no need for Americans to suffer right up to their Katrina-wet lips.
There are only two tiny film clips known showing Woody singing, though he recorded hundreds of songs. Collections are still available to carry on his message, and “Woody’s Children” like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and more recently Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, carry on the tradition. There are several good biographies of Woody as well; I recommend the warts-and-all Woody Guthrie, American Radicalfor its clear storytelling and historical context.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Still, nothing beats a great live performance to bring something alive, and I was lucky enough to see the play/musical Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie in Washington. The show is touring the country and may be playing soon near you.
In addition to showcasing dozens of Woody’s songs, the play features snippets from the man’s life woven into the tunes. The story of the whole of his life is framed around one of the better Guthrie songs, Tom Joad, with bits of the lyrics sung throughout the show to introduce new scenes and events. The four-person ensemble cast is very good, and you’ll hear the important songs: This Train is Bound for Glory, Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?, Union Maid, Sinking of the Reuben James, Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done and of course This Land is Your Land. The cast sings in a sweet harmony, incorporating a variety of traditional American stringed instruments (you can hear samples here, or video.)
Woody was an imperfect man: alcoholic, drifter, unfaithful husband, and all the rest. The show touches on these points, but very correctly separates the imperfections of the man from the near-perfection of his message. A lot of the subtlety has to do with David Lutken’s portrayal of Woody. The two men could not look less alike; Lutken is tall and Texan with neatly combed hair, Woody an imp of a man from Oklahoma who often looked like the hobo he at heart was. But after about ten minutes of warming up, Lutken becomes the real Woody, sad and happy, smiling and funny, serious and feeling, an entertainer for sure but never far from his message. The two share a spirit: it ain’t so much what is that they sing about, but what ought to be, dispelling gloom without denying it exists. Take it easy, Woody would say, but take it. We all need to move from wanting something to change, to changing it, and you can hear that throughout the show’s two hour run.
An Apartheid of Dollars
Woody was (in)famous for a sign on his guitar that read “This Machine Kills Fascists.” My forthcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent doesn’t have a word per se about Woody Guthrie, but if I’ve done my job right every word is about Woody Guthrie. There is no doubt that Woody would be standing with Occupy and others today, and so because of that, it is good to once in awhile replenish our anger and hope with the blood of a true patriot. Woody Guthrie is a hero of mine.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well, and writes about current events at his blog. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, will be available April 2014 from Luminis Books.