July 14, 2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth — a date that seems remarkable not because it’s so distant, but because it’s so recent. Others born that year include John Cheever, Julia Child, and Michelangelo Antonioni, all artists whose work helped define a decade as recent as the 1960s. But Guthrie’s work is tied eternally to the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. That generational disconnect speaks both to Guthrie’s early success — he was still in his 20s when he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” and most of the other songs for which he is remembered — and also to his early demise: he was only 44 years old when he was committed, in 1956, to the first of a series of hospitals where he was treated for the Huntington’s disease that would finally kill him in 1967. *
Listening to Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, the new box set from Smithsonian Folkways, you can hear the distance between Guthrie’s time and our own in the sound of the needle moving through the grooves of the records that serve as its source material. But beneath the pops and crackles you can also hear words and music that might have been written this morning. Take, for example, the opening track, “This Land Is Your Land”. Legend has it Guthrie wrote it as a response to “God Bless America”, Irving Berlin’s still-ubiquitous paean to God and Country. In a way, it succeeded beyond Guthrie’s wildest dreams, becoming almost as well known as Berlin’s song. But, ironically, when it is sung in elementary school classrooms across America, it is usually stripped of its key verses. The first of these, which criticizes the faceless landowners who make up America’s ruling class, is restored on Woody at 100:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me…
But another verse, which attacks the government itself and its feeble efforts to combat poverty, is still missing:
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 made for you and me?
Interestingly, when Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang this song at the celebration for President Obama’s inauguration on the Capital steps, they restored this verse to its place of honor, and Springsteen called it “the greatest song ever written about our home”. Springsteen, of course, has long been Guthrie’s most vocal modern disciple, from the Reagan era masterpiece Nebraska to this year’s Wrecking Ball.
This missing disaffection gets its due in plenty of other songs on Woody at 100, including “Do-Re-Mi”, which tells the story of Okies trying to find a better life in California, and “I Ain’t Got No Home”, on which Woody sings in a ghostly voice: “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.” His guitar was, famously, adorned with the words “This machine kills fascists,” a slogan which may have been inspired by fighter planes in the Spanish Civil War.
Amazingly, given how many Guthrie sets there have been to date, the folks at Smithsonian Folkways have found some new songs that make their first appearance here. The most memorable of these is “Them Big City Ways”, about a small town boy who moves to the metropolis and gets repossessed almost out of existence, concluding: “Finance man he runs the town / And then working man he gets run down / That’s what I learned watching them big city ways.”
If none of the new songs are essential, they’ll still be a boon to completists, while those who only know Guthrie’s most famous songs will get a much more rounded overview from Woody at 100. If, however, you already own one of the other excellent box sets that have come out in the last decade, including The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 (named for Folkways founder Moses Asch, who recorded Guthrie’s greatest material) or the superlative Rounder set My Dusty Road, then this set is an extravagance you probably don’t need, though the 150 page book that comes with it offers a nice pictorial overview of Guthrie’s career.
* It was in one of these hospitals that an unknown 19-year-old who had recently renamed himself Bob Dylan showed up uninvited to meet his hero, an experience he summed up in the final lines of his poem “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie”:
“…where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’ / Where do you look for this lamp that’s a-burnin’ / Where do you look for this oil well gushin’ / Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’ / Where do you look for this hope that you know is there … / You can either go to the church of your choice / Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital / You’ll find God in the church of your choice / You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital / And though it’s only my opinion / I may be right or wrong /You’ll find them both In the Grand Canyon / At sundown.”