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Woody at 100

Maybe if Woody Guthrie could see us now, celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday with reams of newspaper stories and hours of radio broadcasts, new music releases and upturned voices singing at concerts across his beloved America, he’d give an “aw shucks” shrug, turning shyly and humbly to some unnoticed corner of the party.

But I’m more tempted to think that Woody would look on conflicted as all hell, burning with pride that his songs are still sung and celebrated by generations on down the line, but also stuck with an equally fiery anger at why we still lean on so many of his great verses, applicable after all this time.

The world, you see, as much as Woody transformed it, still needs a lot of work.

The 2012 America of Guthrie’s Centennial isn’t exactly the sort of just and equal place he spent his life singing and fighting for. There’s no way to reflect on his life and music without also considering the present as much as the past.

As I spent the weekend of Woody’s 100th birthday listening, reading and thinking – from my own little dusty corner of near-poverty – I was struck yet again by how clearly Guthrie seemed to plot the way forward, for both his oddly ramblin’ self as well as for an American both brimming with possibility and stuck in some thick and vile muck.

To quote Steve Earle, just one of a great many musical descendents, come back Woody Guthrie to us now. Indeed.

But in a sense, Woody has done just that, willed back by admirers and believers, descendents by both blood and spirit. Last year saw Note of Hope, another in a series of new albums recorded by contemporary musicians with previously unheard Guthrie lyrics. Earlier this year came another volumen, New Multitudes. And as the year rushed toward July 14, we got a third batch of Mermaid Avenue songs and kicking off the centennial week, Woody at 100, a special Smithsonian Folkways set of songs, essays and artwork.

All this new attention – coming, as it so happens, in a new era of social upheaval, with civil rights battles now centering on marriage, wage and health equality, and the stark divide between the super-rich and everyone else sending protestors into the streets – serves to deepen and complicate Woody as a character.

 

Mermaid Avenue III extends the dichotomy of the first two volumes between political and love songs, but on both accounts we see a more mature Guthrie, writing songs with a wider array of emotions, mining deeper streaks of loneliness (“Listening to the Wind that Blows”) and well as delivering some sharper satirical humor (“The Jolly Banker”).

Opener “Bugeye Jim” and “My Thirty Thousand” have appeared before (on a 1998 promotional bonus EP) and represent the breadth of songs on Mermaid Avenue III. “Bugeye Jim” is song of dreary lovesickness, with Bragg’s echoing resonator guitar and melancholy croon matching the rain, clouds, mud and aches that drive Guthrie’s lyrics. “My Thirty Thousand,” on the other hand, is as topical as songs come, a rousing tale of civil rights victory – despite threats from the KKK and local authorities, tens of thousands of supporters heard Paul Robeson sing at a 1949 Peekskill, N.Y. concert. Guthrie’s proud first-person take on an event better known for the riots that followed the concert drives home his optimistic commitment to what he saw as the cause of greater justice.

Mermaid Avenue III might be considered the third string, but what’s remarkable is how strong a set of songs they are. There isn’t that singular magic of a “California Stars” or “Remember the Mountain Bed” (two of my all-time favorite songs) on Mermaid Avenue III, but that’s impossibly high for a critical threshold. None of these songs are scraps. None are forgettable. With no intention of producing anything but a single disc, Billy Bragg and Wilco found enough treasures in Woody’s archive for three discs. What that says about Guthrie – and what’s only becoming clearer about him the more of these projects are released – is that in his wildly prolific spitting out of songs, there was a remarkably high baseline of quality.

Another distinguishing feature of Mermaid Avenue III is the greater role of roots-blues singer/guitarist Corey Harris. Though he contributed a welcome blues presence to the first two volumes, Harris received little in the way of notice, lost as he was among too many other factors: the groundbreaking existence of the sets themselves, the at-times behind-the-scenes awkwardness in the collaboration between Bragg and Wilco and the close study of Guthrie’s unheard lyrics.

On Mermaid Avenue III, Harris plays not only a slightly bigger role, but in fact strikes with two of the album’s best songs: first, an idle-hands-are-the-devil’s-playthings type of lament called “Gotta Work” that’s perhaps a window into how Guthrie was able to produce such a mountain of songs – “I gotta work / or go nuts / I get dangerous / if I don’t work.” Next is a lonesome blues ballad that is made all the more fascinating by current political winds. As if it’s the punch line of some cosmic, decades-spanning joke, it’s called “Tea Bag Blues.”

Harris, a MacArthur genius grant recipient, sings with a warmth that conveys the song’s friendliness. Guthrie writes of all his cold, solitary traveling, all those got-nothing nights of his hobo past, when all the comfort he might have is boiling up a little tea. And to close every verse is an offer to “boil you off a tea bag, too.” Contrast that to the anti-tax “what’s mine is mine” crowd protesting under the Tea Party banner these days. I wish that whole crowd would listen to that song and remember that simple kindness is a universal bond.

 

That sort of universal bond is at the core of Guthrie’s greatest work – and the easiest way to connect as a fan to his music. I’ve teared up crying twice while trying to sing along to “This Land Is Your Land” in concert. The first time was in Carnegie Hall, sitting in the farthest back corner seat of the entire auditorium. I’d flown to New York shortly after the 2008 election of Barack Obama (though my own political efforts at the time were as a staff member on the first re-election campaign of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), feeling energized along with millions of others at the promised hope from our first black president. I wish I could venture a guess at how many times Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie have sung that song together, but that time was shared with me, a Thanksgiving-weekend pilgrim to Woody-land. The next time was the following year, in Golden Gate Park, surrounded by tens of thousands of souls all vibing on the spirit of Woody Guthrie. Tom Morello led that round, with his guest Steve Earle, and it was the loudest, most honest sing-along I’ve ever joined.

The secret to both of those moments is in the togetherness. It’s something you can’t fake, something you can’t duplicate. You’ve simply got to be in a group of people – huge or small – lifting your spirits heavenward, voices testifying together that this is OUR land, all of us equally. People just aren’t meant to be shut off from one another, estranged, glaring suspiciously across some divide or other. What good is that? Woody infused that positive sense of togetherness into his songs, again and again, defiantly and vibrantly spreading that message his whole career.

Listening to the new Mermaid Avenue III, I think back 14 years to the first volume, a teen-aged Wilco fanatic with just a passing knowledge of Guthrie. That record started it, a slow and hardly monolithic process, but one in which Woody Guthrie surely changed my life. I could have never known it at the time, of course, but Mermaid Avenue couldn’t have possibly come at a better time in my life, a 19-year-old college freshman, barely a year after catching my first Wilco show on the Being There tour. I was in love (still am) with a band that hit me everywhere that mattered, and here was a new record, absolutely perfect in how it distilled country, rock and folk with probing and terrific lyrics.

It’s the album it was supposed to be, at least for me. I blew in through the Wilco door and never stopped, running deep first into Bragg territory and then later Guthrie territory. I was in the perfect time and place personally to absorb why Guthrie mattered to Wilco. Already a Dylan fan, I understood the troubadour songwriter influence on those early records of his, but Wilco instantly bridged a generation gap for me. “California Stars” is a party, a seduction, a warm moment between friends. “Ingrid Bergman” might sound like a tender, sweet day-dreamy song, but really it’s more masturbatory fantasy than celebrity crush. I got that.

What I didn’t get is the Man in the Sand film chronicling the Mermaid Avenue project. I saw bickering and some hippie-dippie stuff that didn’t really touch much on the actual songs that I cared so much about. Revisiting the film more than a decade later is a completely different experience. What I saw as a bit boring is downright prophetic now.

The film, included in Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, is a fascinating look into the creative struggles behind reintroducing a 30-years dead folk singer to a new audience, with only scraps of lyrics to go on, guided only by some vague notion of how the album should sound.

Billy Bragg and Wilco weren’t a great fit stylistically. The match was in the talent and artistic vision, no matter how differently they were expressed. And that combination made for an utterly unique product, one that brought each participant into a new and better realm and ultimately dragged out much more complexity about Woody Guthrie as a songwriter and person than would’ve seen the light had any one person had the helm. It’s fascinating now to see the creative struggles about the project. I saw it as petty before, but great art should be difficult to create, especially when it’s such a collaborative effort between many mostly equal partners. A tougher challenge yielded richer results.

All together, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Mermaid Avenue/Man in the Sand projects accomplished way more than just a Bragg or Wilco run through the Guthrie archives ever could have done. And, maybe, it needed that much force go blow open the doors of that archive.

It’s pure Woody, actually, racing forward with full energy, no plan but full of optimism and confidence and wildly bold purpose: to change the world.

 

The new songs from Guthrie himself on Woody at 100 represent the same sort of expansiveness as the new releases from other musicians mining his archives: songs that touch on migrants and politics, but also love, family and his lonesome travels.

The collection’s first two discs are a thorough yet succinct overview of Guthrie’s recording career – easier to digest than the four-volume Asch Recordings set that Smithsonian Folkways released in 1999 – while the third disc holds treasures for the already-devoted: four recently discovered songs that Woody recorded in Los Angeles in 1939, to all accounts the earliest recordings he made, and live radio performances culled from the Smithsonian archives. Also included is a 154-page book are drawings and paintings by Woody, as well as extensive liner notes and essays (which, in the interest of writing this essay I’ve left alone for now).

“Skid Row Serenade” and “Big City Ways” are interesting in-between songs for Guthrie. Like much of the songs on New Multitudes, they’re grounded in his Los Angeles experience, but not explicitly part of his dust-bowl refugee repertoire. “Skid Row” is essentially a character study of a different sort of down-and-out, almost a proto-Tom Waits approach to describing and embracing oddballs and loners. “Them Big City Ways” leans more to the perspective of an outsider arriving in a new place, the financial struggles similar to other ones Guthrie wrote about, but it’s distinctly urban feel is rare. Both songs are so different from Guthrie’s dust-bowl ballads to suggest why he discarded them.

Guthrie’s biggest breaks first came in Los Angeles, where he constructed an exaggerated dust-blown Okie image and leveraged it into a must-see sideshow attraction.

So when even great songs veered a bit from Guthrie’s effective radio persona, they were ones that could sit tight for another day. In retrospect, that cunning way he cultivated his Okie character paints Guthrie as more of a careerist than he ever let on in Bound For Glory, his roughly autobiographical account of those days.

The other new songs from Woody at 100 similarly don’t fit anywhere in particular – war songs and children’s songs and some reinterpreted standards. They’re perhaps the first entry into that vast archive – the songs that he actually got around to recording in bits and pieces, not as any part of a greater whole. His recording career was captured almost exclusively in particular projects – Dust Bowl Ballads, for the chief example. But Woody was always writing outside the lines and it’s a pleasure to finally hear some of what was never easily framed by someone trying to sell records.

 

To borrow a phrase, what we talk about when we talk about Woody Guthrie, thanks to all this new music and the soon-to-be released novel House of Earth, is a shifting and expanding set of things.

Though he’d be the voice of the 99 Percent today – as his son, granddaughter and numerous disciples have been – the picture emerging of Woody from his long-unheard-yet-newly-recorded songs often times hews more to troubled family man.

In a sense way, Guthrie lived a quintessentially American life. That celebrated individualist defined – in his own ornery way, of course – upward mobility. You couldn’t duplicate his path if you tried to hop all the boxcars in the West, but there he went, from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to New York City. What’s so remarkable about that climb is what’s so hard to find in the celebrated artists of this age: Woody didn’t care about the materialistic ends that marked his success as a songwriter. Greed surely hit his life in other ways, but when money, big money, was there for the taking, Woody passed it by. Or gave it away, like he did with a jacket when someone else needed it more.

Green Day, an arena-rock band whose punk roots and 2004 protest record American Idiot give a strong sense that they’d align with Woody’s politics, pulled the same feat he perhaps did, rising from the 99 percent to that top 1 percent. But while Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong awkwardly defends the band’s willing commercialism, Woody never sought it in the first place. While it’s impossible to compare the 1940s of Guthrie and the 1990s & 2000s of Green Day, the links between the two are clear and prominent, a torch passing through Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg, who long ago termed Woody “the first alternative musician.”

Reflecting another decade of Guthrie’s posthumous impact, Bragg now says that “In the pantheon of American poets, Woody belongs midway between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.” Re-evaluation certainly changes perspectives, and it’s easy to see in the strong hand of Nora Guthrie guiding her father’s archives that she wants any remaining one-dimensional notions of the man squashed.

Some of the most in-depth discussions of Guthrie’s centennial come from broadcasts of Democracy Now and on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered. Nora herself sounds like a doctoral-level historian, impressively studied but also holding a particular point of view, arguing that her father’s influence extends well beyond the Bob Dylan-led burst of folk revival to some greater sort of prescience about what’s truly American about those who struggle as well as those who succeed. Just as she’s done with Woody’s archives – and as her mother Marjorie did with leading a movement of Huntington’s Disease research – Nora presents her father as an entrepreneurial spirit, not only in a business sense, though he clearly fits that description with his musical career, but also as sort of cultural maven, using songs to slowly and surely shift opinions to align with his.

But while more nuance emerges about Woody as a family man, an environmentalist, a humorist and a man whose fierce working spirit continued long after his body began refusing to cooperate, producing works we’ll still be getting first glimpses of years from this Centennial celebration, everything begins with his ideals, his committed call to everyone that we just need to get together to make this a better world. That’s the root of his fight for workers, the poor, migrants and all of his fellow displaced wanderers. It’s Guthrie’s own brand of American Exceptionalism, one that relies on the truest notions of justice, equality and freedom for all. And, thanks in large part to Woody’s efforts, this land is made for you and me.

 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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