Editor’s note: With Saturday marking Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, we asked music scholar Hugh Foley for his take on why Guthrie still matters. A professor at Rogers State University in Claremore, Foley is the author of the Oklahoma Music Guide II and a founding board member of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
No one disputes that Woody Guthrie is the most significant Anglo-American folksinger, period. He merged the British ballad musical and storytelling tradition with African-American blues; added the incisive and humorous sociopolitical commentary of Will Rogers; and became the emblematic folk-music spokesperson for the downtrodden, beat-up, misused and abused common person on the downside of the American economic spectrum in the 1930s and ’40s.
His contemporary legacy can be found in any singer-songwriter expressing his or her self in ways that help us understand our world in terms not spun by a politician’s consultants or a media outlet focused on a target audience.
When Guthrie’s seminal Dust Bowl Ballads emerged in 1940, not only did it depict the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the impact of both on Oklahomans, the songs became archetypes for how a folksinger and songwriter can weave powerful tales where the content overwhelms the form or glitzy delivery. With Guthrie as a musical and lyrical model, Bob Dylan’s entire reason for mattering in the 1960s was as a folk artist whose lyrics depicted the shifting sensibilities of people open to change during that tumultuous decade.
Pastures of plenty
Guthrie’s influence through Dylan also may have impacted no less than The Beatles, whose topical triteness of their early recordings gave way to a broader lyrical sensibility after hearing Dylan’s 1962 self-titled album that included “Song to Woody,” and his 1963 landmark, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which includes the signpost song for the king of post-Woody folk, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Freewheelin’ also includes other numbers that reveal Woody’s influence on Dylan, especially “Talking World War III Blues,” a reverential appropriation of Guthrie’s talking-song vocal style and caustic persona.
That same sing-speak storytelling, accompanied by repeating chord progressions, runs right through Dylan to The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, Oklahoma’s own Steve Ripley, and all the Red Dirt bards from Bob Childers to Jimmy LaFave and Red Dirt Rangers. Femme angst queen Ani DiFranco chan-nels Guthrie’s ghost through her shrewd lyrical talents and funky but subtle folk guitar style.
Guthrie’s most obvious current heir is Todd Snider, whose “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” established him as a spot-on reincarnation of Guthrie’s acerbic humor, social insight and ability to endear himself to the most too-hip-tolisten-to-folk-music audiences.
The music world in Oklahoma and nationwide has continued paying devoted attention to Guthrie’s legacy. The 15th annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival continues this week in Okemah. Blue Door impresario Greg Johnson has organized popular tributes to Guthrie since 1991.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, the George Kaiser Family Foundation has purchased the Woody Guthrie archives in New York, with plans to move the collection to Tulsa. An all-star tribute concert in Tulsa this past spring capped off a well-attended scholarly symposium on Guthrie.
Further developments for Guthrie’s legacy emerged with the announcement by Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum of an exhibit that will tour public schools statewide through summer 2013. Ramblin’ Round: Guthrie Goes to School is designed to inform elementary-aged students about Guthrie’s life and music.
The Oklahoma Humanities Council picks up the torch in 2013 with its Smithsonian Institution partnership called Museums on Main Street, in which Smithsonian exhibits are installed in smaller Oklahoma communities. The 2013-14 exhibit, New Harmonies: Discovering American Roots Music, explores the impact of America’s traditional ethnic music.
Not surprisingly, Guthrie is a primary component of the interactive exhibit that opens in Idabel in March 2013, and ends in Alva the following year.
Bound for glory
After reading his email, I thought of the new verse to “This Land is Your Land” I learned from some front-porch pickers in Okfuskee County. The new lyrics have never really been heard outside of the locals around Okemah, and have no known author.
If the subject of the lionized local, Woody Guthrie, comes up in conversation, a strummer around Weleetka might grin and sing, “This land ain’t your land / This land is my land / You better get off, before I blow your head off / I’ve got a shotgun, so you better run / This land is private property.”
Given both the allotment period from the American Indian perspective, when excess tribal lands were opened to non-Indian settlement, and how land was routinely foreclosed in the 1930s, the verse demonstrates the dynamic “folk” element of musical creation by the people in that area — and which is still very much alive.
If Woody could have heard the descendants of his childhood neighbors making up a funny, tough, and somewhat sarcastic additional verse to his most famous song, I think he would have liked it.
In Woody’s own words, we will be “thinkin’ and wonderin’” about the life and music of this American icon — who gained his horse sense in Oklahoma — for many years down the road.