The stock market suffers its biggest dive in decades. Charismatic figures take to the mass media and use xenophobia and racism to incite furious ignorance. Banks and predatory lenders drive people from their homes and into bankruptcy.
It’s in this environment that Woody Guthrie created his body of work. There are obvious angles for the 21st century citizen to engage with it. He’s one of those artists you’re “supposed” to adore (or at least pay appropriate reverence), but I suspect most people of my generation receive Woody’s influence as refracted through the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, etc. He’s one of those artists who is more often admired than enjoyed.
Since purchasing a vinyl copy of Dust Bowl Ballads in my early teens, I’ve had a handful of obvious favorites—”So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” “Do Re Mi,” “I Aint Got No Home,” “Hard Travelin’”—but I’m not sure I ever truly felt moved by the dust bowl balladeer. I appreciated him, sure. But despite my empathy for his thematic concerns, there was a gap. There’s his rudimentary guitar technique, one that makes a three-chord rock tune sound like King Crimson. His lilting singing voice and tendency to swallow the melody. And there’s not exactly a lot of hooks.
Indeed, it’s not the in-studio performances that make him an icon. This isn’t the place for me to rhapsodize about Why Woody Guthrie Is Important. But I think I can summarize. Above all, he was a truth teller. And it is tremendously powerful when powerless people hear someone speaking their own truth on their behalf.
I’ve had this post kicking around in my head for a few days, and decided to catch up on a bunch of Woody for research. (Mostly, I was inspired by the excellent album of all-Woody material Arlo Guthrie and The Dillards released in 2008. This is great stuff! The full-band acoustic treatment really shows the material well.)
Somewhere in the aggregate, his voice emerged for me. There’s not one or two songs to throw on and achieve a transporting experience. But with song upon song, story upon story, the humor, the outrage, the fierce determination to fight, and by so doing, to survive—well, he spoke to me. I think it has to do with his brilliant tactic of placing so many lyrics in the second person. Woody works in your fields to put light sparkling wine on your table…it’s like there’s always a finger pointing straight through the speakers, always asking one question: which side are you on? Depending on the answer, the hand attached to that finger might be reaching over to help you up. (Or it might be writing nasty things about you on the body of its acoustic guitar.) In an age of ironic disaffection, the sense that there’s a lot at stake and it matters is an incredibly valuable one. (Billy Bragg told me he was inspired that “Woody never wrote a cynical song in his life.” Arlo Guthrie disagrees, but nevertheless.)
Woody’s someone who built a career, not a list of greatest hits. I’m not sure there’s a single song that can ably summarize the gestalt of any great person (unless you could the relationship between that song “Real American” and the mid-80’s Hulk Hogan). Nor one album (though if there is, it must be Dust Bowl Ballads). But four cds’ worth might do it nicely.
This is by way of noting the recent release of an important new collection of Woody Guthrie music. Many of the recordings he made with the production of Moses Asch of Folkways Records have been available for years, notably in a four-CD set released in 1999. The sound quality is less than great. (It’s this set I used for the research noted above.)
Most of those takes, plus some newly surfaced ones, have now emerged through a priceless find of master recordings in the Asch descendants’ garage. (See a video about this here.) I’ve only sampled these songs from the Amazon page, but based on this and the reviews I can say the sound is incredibly improved. It counts as a revelation, really. The new box is called My Dusty Road, and it’s oh-so-preciously packaged in a, umm, suitcase. (Homelessness and dislocation as hobo chic!) But it comes with a book that looks like it may be very good.
No, his studio performances can’t adequately sum up what Woody did and what he means. But with decent sounding recordings now available in greater abundance, they can come a lot closer.