One of my favorite vernacular music collections is entitled Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be. A Yazoo Records compendium of musicians filmed just after the shift from silent movies to talkies, it gives you not only the sound of authentic American roots music, but the sight of those authentic American roots musicians playing it, in the authentic American places where the roots were put down in the first place.
(Excepting the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, who opted to perform his songs on a stage set with actors and stilted dialogue, which should make him the great-grandfather of MTV.)
When you watch and listen to Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be, you’re supposed to get the anachronism right away. The musicians don’t dress as we do, don’t sing as we do, don’t interact with a camera as we would — their very authenticity means to separate them from us, segregate them into a historical ghetto nowadays known as The Old, Weird America.
In the context of the Great Depression, though, are Bascom Lamar Lunceford, the Lemire Twins and the Georgia Field Hands really that far removed from us? Read the daily paper, while we’ve still got one, and you see headlines that would have been depressingly familiar to our antecedents: unemployment is scarily high, Europe is in economic turmoil, politics is tainted by the influence of big money, racial prejudice remains pervasive. Perhaps times still is like they used to be.
In the new, weird America, Woody Guthrie would feel right at home. The author of “This Land is Your Land” and thousands of other folk songs would recognize instantly the fractures in society caused by the excesses of unregulated capitalism.
The poet of hard-scrabble would also spot the political inequities such fractures create. Guthrie once wrote, “There’s several ways of saying what’s on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain’t any too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind or even vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around.”
The word about Woody Guthrie will be getting around more the closer we get to July 14, the centennial of his birth. There’ll be little talk about his guitar playing, average at best, or his rough-edged singing voice, but the legacy of those songs continues to grow as their pertinence persists.
Guthrie was not exactly the boxcar-hopping loner popular legend made him out to be. He was raised in comfortable circumstances in Okemah, Okla., a town caught up in an economic boom once oil was discovered there in 1920. He had his own CBS radio show at one time, and during World War II, he worked for the Army writing songs about STDs. He married three times and fathered eight children we know about. Besides the songs, he wrote three novels, sheaves of poems and prose pieces and created an abundance of drawing and paintings. It’s safe to say Woody Guthrie was comfortable with his contradictions.
When Okemah’s and America’s economies collapsed midway through the Hoover Administration, Guthrie moved to Texas, where he started playing songs he’d learned from his father in makeshift bands such as the Corn Cob Trio. As the Depression deepened and dust storms wiped local agriculture off the map, he hit the road to support his family, finding work occasionally as a sign painter and more often singing in bars.
As Guthrie bummed around the Southwest, he encountered people in dire circumstances and used song to record their plight. When he made his way to California, he and his fellow Okies were perceived as outsiders bent on taking jobs needed by locals. The songwriter used that prejudice as a tool in songs such as “I Ain’t Got No Home,” in which he was “just a wanderin’ worker, I go from town to town/And the police make it hard wherever I may go….Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor/an’ I ain’t got no home in this world any more.”*
Guthrie saw other kinds of prejudice visited upon migrant workers, and hit a note familiar today in the mournful “Deportee”: “Some of us are illegal and some are not wanted/Our work contract’s out and we have to move on/Six hundred miles to that Mexican border/They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”*
He saved choice burns for financiers, whom he saw as having engineered the plight of so many of his fellow citizens. He composed an especially wry ditty contrasting bankers with bank robbers in a tune inspired by a notorious stick-up artist of the day, “Pretty Boy Floyd: “Yes, through this world I’ve wandered/I’ve seen lots of funny men/Some will rob you with a six-gun/and some with a fountain pen/And as through your life you travel/As through this life you roam/You won’t never see an outlaw/Drive a family from their home.”*
Woody Guthrie wrote songs about the Grand Coulee Dam, Harriet Tubman, Joe DiMaggio, atom bombs and overalls, but the one everyone knows is “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin’s treacly “God Bless America.” As reported by Robert Santelli in his book about the song, it was Guthrie’s music publisher, Howie Richmond, who made the song ubiquitous by getting it included in children’s school textbooks and subsequently into classroom singalongs.
When Guthrie contemporary and folk legend Pete Seeger was asked to sing the song with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inauguration, he agreed to do so only if he could include all the lyrics, including these rarely-heard lines, still ringing true nearly 60 years after their conception:
As I was walkin’, I saw a sign there
And that sign said “No Trespassin’”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
Now, that side was made for you and me.*
*Lyrics copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. and TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.