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Icon of the month: Woody Guthrie

Simon Jones


The truth is, he was never a great songwriter. The US folk icon Woody Guthrie, who would have been 100 years old this summer, sang over 3,000 of his own compositions. But he re-used tunes like the rest of us re-use cutlery - and most of those he picked up from the balladeers who first learned their songs in homelands that predated the USA.

What he did have was a way with words, and a sense that large parts of the still-new country were unvoiced in its rush to superpower and wealth. 'I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world,' he used to say, mid-performance. 'And if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.'

Guthrie's entry in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame lists him as 'the original folk hero'. But although many remember the first troubadour's campaigning politics, fewer recall their origins in his faith. 'All my factories run by power of Christ in God' he wrote, though he was often to find that his representatives on earth were unwilling to take their faith to the same ends.

'Woody was born in one of the most desolate places in America' says Steve Earle, one of the many contemporary inheritors of Guthrie's tradition. 'Just in time to come of age in the worst period in our history. He became the living embodiment of everything a people's revolution is supposed to be about: that working people have dignity, intelligence and value above and beyond the market's demand for their labour.'

That 'desolate place' was the Dust Bowl, made famous by Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Okemah, to be specific, after the oil ran out. Drought forced thousands of dustbowl refugees west in search of work. Guthrie hit Route 66, beginning the journeys he would be best-remembered for: hitchhiking, riding freight trains, playing in exchange for bed and board. Arriving in California in 1937, he was shocked at the scorn and resentment from resident Californians, who opposed the massive migration of the Okie outsiders. It was a prejudice he would remember as he journeyed through the southern states, as yet untouched by the civil rights movements.

Woody was quick to see that black American culture had long been processing injustice in song, and adopted its talking-blues style. He toured with musicians like Leadbelly who, having been imprisoned for killing a white man in a fight, was everything the racist south most feared. Guthrie would be offered food separately (and of a higher quality) to his companion but refused to sit in any such company, taking to the kitchens with his friend.

Returning fromWorld War II  he scrawled 'This machine kills fascists' on his guitar as a reminder that the fight would carry on at home. But he was also keen to remind his audience that US Americans were a blessed people. In response to Irving Berlin's complacent 'God Bless America', he wrote a song he first called 'God Blessed America.' It took a high view of a land that had been granted by God to everyone who lived there and, as 'This Land is Your Land' became the USA's best-known song.

But Woody gave short shrift to anyone whose view of the political Jesus differed to his own: 'What the hell's wrong with this, anybody - speak up! If Jesus Christ was sitting right here, right now, he'd say this very same damn thing. You just ask Jesus how the hell come a couple of thousand of us living out here in this jungle camp like a bunch of wild animals. You just ask Jesus how many millions of other folks are living the same way? You know what Jesus'll say back to you? He'll tell you we all just mortally got to work together, build things together, fix up old things together, clean out old filth together, put up new buildings, schools and churches, banks and factories together, and own everything together. Sure, they'll call it a bad ism. Jesus don't care if you call it socialism or communism, or just me and you.'

In 'Jesus Christ' (sung wilfully to the outlaw tune 'Jesse James'), he put ignorance about Jesus and ignorance about poverty into the same guilty hands:

When Jesus come to town, the working folks around
Believed what he did say
But bankers and preachers nailed him on the cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

'There is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings' said John Steinbeck. 'But there is something more important. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression.' Happy Birthday, sir.

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