Friday, July 13, 2012

Woody Guthrie & The Kingston Trio

"We are all Woody's children" Pete Seeger remarked famously several decades ago, and by "we" he clearly meant everyone who loves American folk and roots music every bit as much as he meant those who collect and perform it. The folk revival in this country, however you wish to define it and whatever parameters you put on its duration, has certainly had its oracles and prophets both before and after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, from John A. Lomax and Cecil Sharp through Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and beyond. But the central figure of the revival, the one whose cultural significance a century after his July 14, 1912 birth still stands above that of all the rest, is the skinny kid from Okemah, Oklahoma whose personal charisma, charm, and talent for writing songs that touched and moved ordinary people to both emotion and action make him the single indispensable figure in American folk music.

That Guthrie was also a canny self-promoter who told a lot of tall tales about himself and was the primary painter of his own icon is also true as well. That he was a sometimes troubled soul with profound character flaws, a deep resentment of authority, and lifelong trouble maintaining stable relationships is equally true - and ultimately not especially relevant to his achievements except in one regard - and that is that his very iconization obscures, as it often does, the true nature of what he was able to accomplish in a musical life that was essentially over for him at the age of 40, fifteen years before what we would see today as his shockingly early death at 55.

The nature of that achievement and its importance is currently being celebrated, debated, and discussed across the airwaves and print media and websites of the nation, and properly so. I'm sure that many of these discussions will point to the popularity of Guthrie's work as essential to the creation of a genuinely national folk music in the U.S. where a mere 80 or so years ago none had existed - it was all regional material, and before the near-simultaneous arrival of Guthrie, radio, and records, Americans seldom heard much music from outside of their own localities and cultural niches. Many others will discuss Guthrie's lifelong commitment to unions and other progressive and radical causes and his willingness to put his own welfare on the line for what he believed in. Still more will praise him for his influence on later and usually lesser lights of the folk world that he helped to create. All of this is true, all of this is real - and all of this misses the simple and essential point of why we should and do still care about Woody Guthrie.

He wrote great songs. I mean, really really great songs - songs that decades after his death people still sing, people still march to, people still embrace, people still connect with, here and around the world. Guthrie's songwriter acolytes in later generations may have exceeded him in lyrical complexity and apocalyptic anger - but those are precisely the points at which they ceased to be folk musicians in any recognizable sense of the word and converted themselves into self-conscious artistes and percussionists for political movements. Folk music is in its very nature simple and repetitive - it is the music of The People, as poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg termed them, and that is the music that Woody Guthrie wrote. Many of his best songs sound familiar the first time you hear them, and you can usually sing them the second. Yet Guthrie is capable of lyrical brilliance unrivaled for its Whitman-esque beauty of simplicity -

I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts...

As the sun was shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a Voice was calling -
"This land was made for you and me."

No American lyricist has ever surpassed those lines for sheer American-ness - for an unselfconscious imagery derived from the real sight of his own two eyes and not from the pages of other people's poetry. You can remember those lines and hundreds more like them, and you can sing them again and again - and you want to. And Guthrie was able to do that in song after song, marrying his words to tunes sometimes traditional and sometimes of his own making but always ending up with compositions that were just, well, supremely singable.

Guthrie's radical politics still give some people pause, perhaps more in these benighted and reactionary times rather more than in decades earlier - but even in this regard there are serious misunderstandings of what he actually created. Consider, for example, the lyrics of two of his most famous creations, the above-quoted "This Land Is Your Land" and "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos," better known as "Deportee." Singers today often jubilantly include the verses from "This Land" that didn't make it into the school songbooks or folk revival LPs - the one about the "No Trespassing" sign most famously. But take a look at the real penultimate verses:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land still made for you and me?

Not a lot there to argue with there, I would think - no party-line commie-loving armed-revolutionary sedition, just the powerfully evocative compassion of a poet who loves his country and his people and who wants to see justice done both for them and for himself. Or take the conclusion of "Deportee" about the crash that killed more than twenty itinerant farm workers -

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Again - could anyone seriously argue against such a sentiment or condemn it as radical? This is the real political Woody Guthrie, if not the sum total of his beliefs at least the very core and essence of them - compassion for people and passion for justice.

In the four years of this series, focusing as it mostly does on the Kingston Trio and pop-folk music, Guthrie's name has appeared in dozens of posts - as how would it not? - and six of his songs linked below have full articles on them. It is a revelation, I think, to look at the songs of Guthrie's that the KT chose to do. The Trio never tried to be a political entity, of course, but these were bright young men who understood the songs and exactly what they were all about. The high-spirited zest and the quietly moving compassion that the Trio brings to these performances are for me completely in tune with the essence of what Woody Guthrie was.

The songs are presented in the order that the Trio recorded them and followed by links to full posts about them.

The list could be longer, of course, were it to include songs performed or adapted by WG - but the only KT song actually substantially written by Woody that the KT recorded not here (no video out there) is "Those Brown Eyes."

Comparative Video 101 Posts On Woody Guthrie Songs

1. "This Land Is Your Land"

2. "Deportee"

3. "Pastures Of Plenty"

4. "The Sinking Of The Reuben James"

5. "Hard Travelin'"

6. "Hard, Ain't It Hard"