“The worst thing that can happen is to cut yourself loose from the people. And the best thing is to sort of vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people.” — Woody Guthrie
“We can be poor now,” Woody’s wife Marjorie told him back in the ’40s. “But someday all this stuff will be worth something.” She was right. Now both Woody and Marjorie are gone—he died in ’67, she in ’85—but his work has been receiving the kind of resurgence she always knew it someday would. As Woody’s fans and family have known for many years, and what the world at large has been slowly but steadily discovering during these passing decades, Woody’s body of work was remarkable—some 2000 songs of love, outrage, beauty, faith, humor, death, sex, and pretty much every other human experience under the sun. Some of these became famous, such as “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” “Roll On Columbia,” “Deportees,” “Union Maid,” and “Do Re Mi,” but most have hardly been heard once, if ever. And there was also so much else that he created: volumes of poetry, books, drawings, doodles, paintings, stories, and letters.
Marjorie and Woody lived together on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, NY, where they would both work at their big wooden kitchen table. She would cook for the kids (Arlo, Joady, and Nora), and do her best to balance their budget—a weekly dilemma. Woody would write new songs each day, typing them out, and then decorating the pages with colored pencils and crayons. In 1980, when I had the privilege of interviewing Marjorie about her crusade to preserve Woody’s work, she proudly showed me the old cardboard cigar box filled with Woody’s crayons and pencils. “These were his,” she said with bittersweet tears. She also opened up her filing cabinet to show me the pages of lyrics, poems, and love-letters he sent her. Many of these were so inspired and sexually-charged that a single one could extend throughout an entire notebook; Woody never had much trouble expressing himself.
Woody was born in the heart of the Dust Bowl—Okemah, Oklahoma—on July 14, 1912. His childhood was spent in the oil-boom town of Pampa, Texas. In the depression-ravaged ’30s he hitched and rode the rails along with thousands to reach the world of their dreams—the promised land known as California.
Of all those wanderers—thousands more than there were jobs—Woody was one of the fortunate few, able to make money by singing, playing guitar and painting signs. He managed to get a 15-minute daily radio show that paid him a dollar per show. And when he wasn’t broadcasting he could be found singing at saloons, parking lots, rallies, and union meetings—anywhere people would listen. He wrote a series of famous songs for these dust bowl refugees, translating their hearts and minds into song in a way only one of their own could do. Using what his pal Pete Seeger called the “folk process”—writing new words to old songs—he gave these people a voice.
Radio gave many people their first taste of Woody’s songs. One listener, Ed Robbin, commentator for the Communist newspaper People’s World, was surprised to discover that the man he had pegged as a hillbilly was actually quite politically savvy. He invited Woody to perform at rallies, first warning him that they were left wing. “Left wing or chicken wing, it’s all the same to me,” Woody said. And with that he connected with a new audience, one that was charmed and inspired by his unique fusion of country simplicity, Okie humor, and political sophistication. His popularity spread quickly across the country and even preceded him to New York City, where he eventually fell in with new friends such as Josh White, Leadbelly, and the actor Will Geer.
Woody also succeeded in getting a radio show in New York, but he didn’t keep it for long, as Marjorie recalled: “He had a show called Back Where I Come From, and he was successful. But he left his show and told me why. ‘They wouldn’t let me sing what I wanted to sing or say what I wanted to say, so who needs them?’ Nobody told Woody what to sing and got away with it.”
But opportunity kept knocking. In an attempt to cash in on the popularity of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Victor Records hired Woody to write a song about it. Though he didn’t read the book, Woody saw and loved the film, and understood its subject matter better than most. With his guitar and a jug of wine, he got behind a typewriter in Pete Seeger’s apartment and proceeded to work into the night. The next morning Pete found him slumped over the desk with 26 verses of “The Ballad of Tom Joad” still in the typewriter.
Everybody might just be one big soul
Well, it looks that way to me…
Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fighting for their rights
That’s where I’m gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m gonna be…
— from “The Ballad of Tom Joad”
“I learned a lot about songwriting from Woody,” Pete said. “I learned something that was awful important, and that was don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you want to change it a little, there’s no crime in that.” Asked if he felt Woody was a happy person, Pete said, “He was an optimistic guy, a thumbs-up guy. He was looking for the silver lining but at the same time he didn’t ignore the dark side of the cloud. The greatness of his lyrics, I believe, is that he was able to combine optimism and tragedy into a single song, as in ‘Tom Joad’.”
“Tom Joad” was the first song of Woody’s that Marjorie had ever heard. At the time she was touring as a dancer with the Martha Graham dance troupe through the Midwest. She stopped in to visit her sister in Missouri, who played her a new record. “It was the first time I had heard his voice,” Marjorie remembered. “And I was so moved that when it got to the end, I started to cry. And I said to my sister, ‘How does anyone put into words all that I’ve been thinking?’ I related it to myself—growing up, going through the Depression, seeing what happened to our family—and here comes Woody singing these beautiful words … I was moved by it.”
A few months later Marjorie got to meet Woody in person when the Martha Graham troupe teamed up with him in New York. She was surprised at first by his small stature, expecting someone of more Lincoln-esque proportions. But she saw his face and she fell in love. Woody also fell for her, and within weeks they were living together.
Woody’s collaboration with the dance troupe, however, was a complete fiasco. The concept was for the dancers to perform as Woody played his songs live, but the result was pure chaos, as Marjorie recalled: “Here I loved this guy and everybody was picking on him because he sang the song different each time. When they asked him why he couldn’t just sing it like the record, he said, ‘The day that record was made, Lee Hayes had asthma, someone had just given us $300, and we were on our way to California. I don’t have asthma, I don’t have $300, and I’m not going to California. So I can’t sing it the same way’.”
This was typical Woody behavior. He disdained anything contrived, preferring things to be human, complete with rough edges and flaws. As John Steinbeck wrote, “Woody is just Woody. Thousands know him by no other name. He is a voice with 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 will listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
By today’s standards, Woody’s records sound rough. Mostly guitar and a ragged, often off-tune voice, recorded on the spot by Moses Asch for his Folkways label. But each of these recordings contains the essence of pure and brilliant songwriting, the marriage of music with words.
Woody well-understood the inherent power of this combination—words to express the timely and timeless needs of the people, and music to underscore that expression while engaging the soul and lifting the spirit. He knew few forces were as effective in uniting people as a good song, and as he constantly traversed America by walking, hitching or riding the rails, he would constantly connect with new people and translate their lives and dreams into songs.
Woody wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” as a kind of response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Woody felt Berlin got it wrong—that America was already clearly blessed by God, and set out to write a song called “God Blessed America For Me.” He kept fiddling with it for a full decade, and eventually realized that if he substituted the line “This land was made for you and me” for his title line, that he had a song not just about himself, but about all of America.
Ironically, though he now admits it’s a great song, when he first heard it, Pete Seeger felt “This Land Is Your Land” was one of Woody’s lesser efforts. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This melody doesn’t go anywhere’,” Pete said. “It just repeats over and over. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. That song hit the nail on the head for millions of people.”
Songs flowed from Woody naturally, unforced, and he thrived on his connection to that source of creativity. His phrase, “seeds of man,” which later became the title for one of his books, represented the tremendous sense of fertility he felt both artistically and sexually. To him there was no barrier between the two forces, the urge to make love being as powerful and right to him as the urge to make art. Both were ways for him to release the energy that drove him, allowing him to be a creator, a bearer of life. His instrument was more the typewriter than the guitar, and with it he generated thousands of pages, letting the words pour out of him in cascades of swirling, dizzying prose. “I live in my blood as a creator,” he wrote, “and to create is my only work. And when I am not creating more today than I did yesterday or last night, these are the days I go wild and crazy and do all sorts of wild crimes that I would never do if I had found a way to reach out and shake hands with creation. And sex is creation.”
This and other passages from his book, Born To Win, suggest that there were many times when the urge to create was more than he could handle, the electric current of creativity growing too intense for the conductor. At these times he would turn to the bottle or the road, and often both.
If Woody was a wellspring of hope and inspiration for others, it was not because life was easy on him. He was always poor, and as a child he watched as his mother went slowly insane, an unknowing victim of the illness that would eventually take his own life, Huntington’s Disease (HD). He was also mysteriously plagued by fire: His father almost died and was severely injured by a fire; his sister Clara died tragically in a fire that his mother was suspected of starting; and years later, his own daughter, Kathy, also died in a fire, a tragedy from which he never really recovered. And as would anyone under these conditions, he harbored a great fear of fire, though he smoked cigarettes his whole life.
As Woody got older, it gradually became clear that something was wrong with him— he had severe tremors throughout his body, and it became increasingly difficult for him to think coherently. In time he was diagnosed with HD, for which there was then no cure and little treatment, and he spent the final 15 years of his life confined to a hospital bed, slowly wasting away.
During those last years there was still a lot of music in his life, thanks to friends and fans from around the country who came to his bedside to visit and entertain him. Bob Dylan made his famous trek from the Midwest to Manhattan just to meet Woody. Pete Seeger was there a lot, as was Rambling Jack Elliot, who according to Marjorie, “did Woody better than Woody did.” They came with guitars and banjos, and sang songs like “Hobo’s Lullaby” and others, a scene both beautiful and haunting, and one that was re-enacted in the movie Alice’s Restaurant, which starred Arlo, and was based on his song of the same name.
Woody died in 1967 at the age of 55. Marjorie devoted herself to preserving his books and songs, and also founded the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, an organization designed to further research and aid families of HD victims. It was the best way she knew to keep Woody’s unflagging spirit of optimism alive.
The one thing that would have probably made Woody the happiest would be knowing that not only are his old songs still sung and celebrated, but that there have been new albums of his songs being created. Billy Bragg did the first one, Mermaid Avenue, which was based on lyrics from Woody’s extensive archives, thanks to access granted by Nora Guthrie, who has supplanted her mother as the guardian of Woody’s work. The second album, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, was a collaboration between Woody, Bragg, and the Chicago band Wilco, whose lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy was honored and inspired by the project. “There’s a lot to Woody that a lot of people don’t know. There’s a lot I didn’t know. We know about the political side—the protest songs and the Dust bowl ballads. But when I got involved I wanted nothing to do with Dust Bowl—that had been done. And there is a whole other world of subject matter there—funny songs, songs about sports, and a lot of romantic and sexual songs. Woody was an extremely sexual guy, and had no problem in expressing that with all the gusto he brought to other subjects. It would be fun to do an entire album of those songs.”
In 2009 Jonatha Brooke released The Works, an album written after spending time in the archives with Woody’s lyrics, and his songs have also been performed and championed by a wide range of singers, including Arlo, Dylan and Seeger, of course, but also by Ani DiFranco, Ry Cooder, and U2, who recorded “Jesus Christ.” Bruce Springsteen has also gone a long way in keeping Woody’s songs and spirit alive, ending many concerts with a beautifully elegiac, solo acoustic version of “This Land Is Your Land,” slowing down the tempo to intensify the beauty of this lyric we all learned long ago.
“I think that much of what Woody said in his songs is only now being discovered,” Jeff Tweedy said. “And I think the message in his songs is more relevant to the world we are in now than ever before.” Tweedy’s right. Though Woody’s been gone now for almost 50 years, his songs and the spirit of human hope instilled in them, have been resounding with more force than they have for years. And the world’s a better place for it, for it’s a message both pure and revolutionary, and as affirmative as anything that has been written since. Woody’s songs have inspired countless other songwriters for years, and have provided a foundation on which so many, from Seeger to Dylan to Springsteen to DiFranco and beyond, have built their careers.
“Love heals all,” Woody wrote in Born To Win. “Love is universal…I say to you, take up your very own gift and talent. Command the planets. Command the starlight. Command the very heavens. Command love to work with you and for you.”
—By Paul Zollo
Photos of Woody Guthrie in NYC in 1943 by Eric Schaal, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images