River of Song
There's more to Woody Guthrie than "Dust Bowl Ballads"
By Bill Kisliuk
AUGUST 21, 2000: Not that any kid who ever sang it in summer camp would know, but "This Land Is Your Land" is a protest song, written by a man who had the phrase "This Machine Kills Fascists" scrawled on his acoustic guitar.
That twist goes to the heart of the legacy of Woody Guthrie, whose diminutive frame has cast a long shadow on musicians from Bob Dylan to Beck, Joe Strummer and Ani Difranco to Spearhead's Michael Franti. Most recently, the Guthrie legend has been illuminated and stretched by Scottish folk punk Billy Bragg and American alterna-rockers Wilco, who've just released a second set of Guthrie songs that had never been heard before. Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra) is rougher, tougher, and generally superior to the 1998 volume, which sold a quarter-million copies.
Over the phone from London, Bragg claims several odd crowns for Guthrie (who was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 and died of Huntington's disease in New York in 1967), calling him "the first alternative musician," "the first singer-songwriter," and -- most curious of all -- "the last in a long line of Elizabethan balladeers." For the last several years, Bragg says, he has acted as "Woody's representative on earth." Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg a few years ago with about 35 sets of lyrics she'd pulled from the mountain of detritus of Woody's career -- overflowing notebooks, journals, drawings, articles, scraps of paper, songs, rants and raves of all sorts. Bragg and his collaborators then wrote the music. "So much of the living man comes leaping out of the page," he says. "You can't fail to be moved. It's like he's written a letter."
And then some. Although Nora Guthrie estimates that her father recorded 300 or 350 songs in his career, she says there are about 2000 more sets of lyrics he never performed. That's prompted Bragg to remark, "I can't think of anyone who built such a special place in the popular culture and folk tradition who has such an undiscovered story to tell."
Of course, the basics of Guthrie's story have been told and told again, in his own Bound for Glory and in several biographies and collections. He wandered away from his star-crossed family at 16, drifting through the Southwest during the Depression, hopping trains and working as a sign painter and newsboy, among other things. His musical chronicle of that time is perhaps his most lasting and impressive body of work. The 15 songs known as the "Dust Bowl Ballads," which Guthrie sang accompanied only by his guitar, form a bleak account of poverty and rootlessness. The sing-songy "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh)" has worked its way into the American folk vernacular. On "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," Guthrie spins the tale of an Okie who has scared up a couple of potatoes to make some "mighty thin" potato stew for his children. In the tradition of talking-blues songs, the story ends on a sardonic note: "Always have figgered that if it had been just a little thinner . . . some of these here politicians could have seen through it."
Recorded in 1940, The Dust Bowl Ballads were re-released last month by Buddha Records with Guthrie's original accompanying essay and other ephemera. The songs are part of a recorded legacy that includes many original children's songs that have stuck (and sold well) for generations, old folk ballads, and populist, pro-union, generally lefty political songs.
Still, according to Bragg, "Woody as a New Yorker is more significant than as a Dust Bowl refugee." Woody settled in New York around 1940 and spent many years raising a family in a house on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. During the New York years he hooked up with Leadbelly and the Weavers, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and countless other characters at union rallies, protests, political gatherings, and hootenannies to fight classism, racism, and all the other isms that he lampooned so precisely.
The period in New York after he stopped recording (but before Huntington's disease forced him to spend the last 13 years of his life in a hospital) is the focus of the Mermaid Avenue sessions. On Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's lazy, earthy vocals carry about half the tunes, including songs where Wilco's ragged cohesiveness sometimes recalls the Band and at other times dips into a dreamy Doors-like vibe. Several cuts on volume two are raucous or even dark, but Natalie Merchant sings a lilting children's song and acoustic bluesman Corey Harris animates Guthrie's send-up of a hobo's troubles, "Aginst th' Law." Bragg takes on a mixture of light stuff and barbed social commentary, and his spare guitar accompaniment and easy melodies are often as simple and homespun as Guthrie's might have been. But not always -- a rolling thunderstorm of crashing chords and cymbals surrounds him as he shouts "You Fascists bound to lose" over and over again on "All You Fascists." "I saw it as a Clash song," says Bragg. "Pure and simple."
Bragg also takes on "Stetson Kennedy," a tune that could well have been written for him or the Clash. One verse goes: "I ain't the world's best writer or the world's best speller, but when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller."
Bragg and Wilco worked out the arrangements in 1998 during a month-long session in Dublin and another, shorter session in Chicago. With the second volume out, two-thirds of that material has now been released. Bragg says there is no current plan to release the rest. The Mermaid Avenue project has also spawned a documentary film; it's been released in Europe but is not yet available in the United States.
In line with seeing Woody as an Elizabethan balladeer, Bragg chose "An Unwelcome Guest" for the first Mermaid CD. This tale of a horseman who steals from the rich is in the tradition of the 16th- and 17th-century ballads that Bragg heard as a youth in Scotland and that American folkies, including Dylan, have unearthed. Bragg points out that the thief's horse in "An Unwelcome Guest" is Black Bess -- the name borne, in the old ballads, by the horse of famed 18th-century English highwayman Dick Turpin. Bragg says that's no coincidence: "He didn't choose 'Trigger,' if you know what I mean."
Guthrie's superhuman ability to churn out kids' songs and protest songs, traditional ballads and fables stitched from the news of the day, wasn't entirely reflected in his own recordings, according to his daughter. Nora Guthrie, who runs a repository of her father's writings located in Manhattan, the Woody Guthrie Archive, recalls that most everything her father taped was done for Folkways records, in cahoots with legendary folklorists Alan Lomax and Moe Asch. Asch loved Guthrie's political material and encouraged him to record it (Smithsonian Folkways has released "The Asch Recordings" on four volumes).
"He only recorded with Moe," says Nora over the phone from New York. "And Moe had his interests. He didn't record the other material." She says Woody might write five songs in a single day, including a union anthem or two, a kids' song, and something like "Ingrid Bergman," a fantasy about the movie star, "But nobody wanted to record that."
Until Bragg, who did it on volume one of Mermaid Avenue. As prolific as Guthrie was, he might not have been that easy for Asch or others to work with. He was a rambler and an eccentric, what his daughter calls "a force of nature." Asch encouraged Guthrie to write a song cycle about the infamous trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two immigrant anarchists who were executed for murder in Massachusetts in 1927. Guthrie ultimately recorded the songs, but not on the timetable Asch had expected. In a November 1944 letter to Asch, he writes, "I'm drunk as hell today, been that way for several days, hope you are the same. . . . I refuse to write the songs while I'm drunk and it looks like I'll be drunk for a long time."
This note was published in Peter D. Goldsmith's Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records, and Nora Guthrie laughs when she hears it read aloud, saying there is a lot about her father that would surprise people familiar with him only from "This Land Is Your Land." "He could be really, really critical. Very black and very down. It's not the persona we're familiar with, probably not the persona he wanted to project. I feel somewhat obligated to deconstruct the icon. I'm not interested in Saint Woody."
Nora is working with jazz bassist and duet specialist Rob Wasserman on an upcoming release where contemporary artists will take on some of Guthrie's unpublished prose. Michael Franti and Ani Difranco will lay down a track or two; Rickie Lee Jones, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith may also participate. And a separate project of unheard Guthrie children's songs with Taj Mahal and Syd Straw is in the works.
One thread that runs through all of Guthrie's musical children -- from his son Arlo to Dylan, Difranco, U2's Bono, and Bruce Springsteen -- is a sharp political eye. As Billy Bragg explains, "I think what Woody and I have in common is that we both lived in very ideological times. He in the 1930s and me in the 1980s in the UK. But we're not political animals. We're looking for a more humanitarian philosophy, both of us. We were trying to write as honestly as we could about what we saw. And we couldn't not be political, no matter how hard we tried."
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