(Last? Nah) Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

There’s an interesting but to me somewhat misconceived piece in yesterday’s Times about Woody Guthrie’s legacy. It’s true, as the writer begins by saying, and it’s worth pointing out any time, that when American intensity like Guthrie’s gets absorbed and glorified in certified culture — PBS pledge drives, postage stamps — all the “honoring” is really a cannibalizing destruction.

The only fix for that is to turn all that crap off and listen to the original work again. Which, with the “hundredth year” hoopla, I’ve been doing lately. And I always have thoughts on Woody, first and last, ever since I first took the scratched-up “Dust Bowl Ballads” LP out of the library in about 1972. I recently received the new, superb Smithsonian centenary collection as a birthday gift; I’ve been pondering its curators’ choices too.

And when I listen now, and when I have listened over these many years, I always find in the legacy of Guthrie’s protest — which the Times writer complains is too weak today — yet another pollution of Guthrie’s original art and of his original protest, if protest is what to call it.

Many of Guthrie’s anti-establishment songs really are great. Some really are not. But there’s no “legacy” in the kind of greatness that the great songs have. You can’t cop the content or the attitude and then make it your own, unless you’re another genius overly influenced by Guthrie; nobody but one person was ever that, and he outgrew the agit-prop mode, and outgrew imitation, a long time ago.

The beauty of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example, has been sucked out of it by the protest people’s histrionic, crowd-pumping arranging. Here’s an admittedly extreme example, from Peter, Paul & Mary, of the revolting mode in which people have every reason to think the song naturally exists: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUnvjYH9wK4.

You could say that’s the PBS-fund-drive version. And it is. But I think the style — though grotesquely in overdrive here — comes straight out of the rallying singalongs in which the song got framed up, to make it another “If I Had a Hammer,” in the 1950’s and ’60’s (and fed that way to some of us in school).

That is: the PBS mode is the protest mode. If you like that kind of thing, OK. For me, what feels like an injection of a certain falsely thrilling, overdetermined emotion robs the song of every bit of meaning.

To see what I mean, just return to one of Woody’s own renditions of the song.

Here’s one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaI5IRuS2aE. I find this unforgettable, irresistible, mysterious. But the simplicity and straightness — reminiscent of Roy Acuff’s approach to “Great Speckled Bird” — may at first (or forever) disappoint those raised on the “protest” mood.

Guthrie was a true performing artist in that he wasn’t about to revel as a singer in the poetry of the words he had written. The performance is going multiple ways at once. There’s every kind of distance and closeness in it. Whatever. I’m going to listen to it again and again.

Right now, in fact. Back in a minute.

Yes: That is what Dylan got from Guthrie, and that is why Dylan’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” will forever kick the hell out of the kind of emotionalized distortion so horribly on display, yet again by Peter, Paul & Mary, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t4g_1VoGw4. (So it’s obvious: I do not like PP&M. But I should note that I think what I find wrong with them is but a development of Pete Seeger’s approach in the Almanac Singers, made even worse by the Weavers.)

Is this one reason Dylan very quickly had to tell all these people to get lost? I’m eternally glad he did. But to get back to the point of this post, the Times writer seems not to feel that way.

[UPDATE: And I’m keenly aware that Dylan yields to nobody in respect for Pete Seeger. Still, the relentess yoking of communalism to music — the reductive folkie insistence that communalism is what folk music, essentially, is — that stuff, it seems to my ears, Dylan was zooming past, goofing on, fighting, and elaborating even while he was briefly, during his great period of juvenalia, in it.]

Some today like to point to the “forbidden” verse of “This Land,” often not sung, about private property. It’s not exactly forbidden any more: Seeger and Springsteen led an audience in singing the verse at Obama’s inauguration celebration, supposedly lending credence to rightist fears that this would be a communist administration (pretty hard to imagine a Springsteen, for one, in a land where private property was abolished!). And that verse has always sounded to me like the work of a bad Woody imitator (like Millard Lampell), which is what Woody did sound like when jotting-to-order from the Stalin-era Daily Worker. The better-known “relief-office” verse, too, sounds pat and received to me, obvious, banal, non-idiosyncratic — not something that will get down into your gut and make you think of something you never thought of before.

And that’s the weak stuff the Times piece is calling for more of. That’s the kind of songwriting the piece says we’re failing the Guthrie legacy by not doing.

But here’s something weird. The new Smithsonian collection presents a Woody recording with a version of the “property” verse included, and when Woody sings it, the verse is OK. In his voice, it sounds real. Like say a guy was actually just walking somewhere, and he just happened to come to an actual wall, with an actual sign, which actually said “private property,” and he just jumped the wall and kept going, in his reverie, “trodding through creation/in a irie mediation,” as Bob Marley once sang. (Or “Ain’t talking/Just walking,” as Dylan has, more darkly.) You can draw your own conclusions about the guy, the wall, the sign, and so the verse plays, when Woody sings it. It’s somehow believable.

This is art we’re talking about here.

(It reminds me of that Studs Terkel radio interview with a young Dylan, where Terkel says of “Hard Rain” something meant to be admiring like “we know it’s a nuclear rain,” and Dylan says something like: “no, no, it’s a, it’s just a, it’s like a hard rain!”)

Woody gets realism into his own recording of the “property” verse partly by not shifting the tagline, in this particular recording, to “that land [i.e., the one without private property] was made for you and me,” or “that side [without private property] was made for you and me,” as many others do, in hopes of shoving a communalist point home. He just goes right back to the regular “this land was made” mantra. It’s not a point, it’s a song, and of course the effect is far stronger this way. (He also leaves out the lame “relief office” verse.)

When Woody was on, which was often, he was reporting what he saw and taking on personas and opening doors on whole worlds. He wasn’t putting into ditty form what he thought people should think. And with rare exceptions, trying to shoehorn simple ideas into people’s heads is the protest song as we know it. When Steve Earle sings as a prison guard, he brings something about the death penalty horribly to life for me. When he sings “Come back, Woody Guthrie,” he might as well be singing “God Bless America,” as far as I’m concerned. (A song that despite the 1930’s folkies’ snobbish disdain, is just a lesser piece of work by another great vernacular composer. The folkies wrote tons of jingoism at least as crappy as that.)

For ruining everything, I blame the crowd-rousing approach taken by Seeger in the Almanacs and in the Weavers. The Times piece, by stark contrast, sees Seeger as the fading spark of what Woody was all about.

And I blame Joan Baez. She could take any Guthrie song, any Dylan song — any song, really — and in part because of her gorgeous voice, in part because of her overwhelming earnestness, make them all sound the same by making them portentous. Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” for example, has a tense structure and very clean and tasteful rhymes, which are really what make it work: the “fountain pen” line is unusually good agit-prop, but the song’s criminal-glorifying politics are Woody-stupid. In Guthrie’s own recording, a straightahead, laid-back vocal approach and strange additions to and deletions of measures put the song over. Dylan does some interesting, random-feeling extending of the phrasing in his version too. Woody-stupid at its best is always OK with me.

But Baez, in a famous early reading, pushes the opening phrase in every verse as if it meant something. What’s with the passionately heartfelt vibrato in a song about a guy who killed a deputy because he cursed in front of the guy’s wife? What’s with all the aggrievement, all the . . . protest? The very beauty of Baez’s singing makes this recording unbearable to me. She makes the song literally meaningless.

In the context of calling for more protest music, the Times piece notes hopefully that the Guthrie estate is releasing much unpublished Guthrie material. But I suspect the writer knows, from “Mermaid Avenue” and other projects, that a lot of that stuff isn’t political at all. It’s refreshing to see the piety in the Guthrie cult get criticized, but to me, the “protest legacy” element of Woody’s reputation is the pious part, not a rebuke to it. (The piece also calls Guthrie a vigilante, which given “Vigilante Man” I find weird but intriguing. “Vigilante Man” is good — again it’s mysterious, all questions.) The author, Lawrence Downes, has raised some important issues — and man! is this piece a relief after John Mellencamp’s godawful poem about Guthrie actually published in “Arts & Leisure” a few weeks ago! — but I think if you’re looking for the roots of the classic, crowd-rallying protest song, you’re better off listening to Peter, Paul & Mary than listening to Woody Guthrie. He did think guitars kill fascists (and he was wrong about that), but singalong, in the end, was not his thing. He had his own vision to pursue, in his own way, and he was a goddamned artist.

[UPDATE: Some years ago, in this same spirit, I invoked the Bottle Rockets as avatars of Guthrie.]

[UPDATE: And in the next post here, I engage with some of the comments that emerged from this one.]

7 thoughts on “(Last? Nah) Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

  1. But as the piece quotes Arlo (current politics aside) as having said, his father’s image on a postage stamp would nonetheless have come as a stunning defeat.

    • Totally agree with the Times writer that the co-optation (if that’s a word) of radicalism, by tame parts of our certified culture, is gross and stupid. Yet regarding the stamp, it occurs to me now that Arlo’s remark might at least to some extent be Ron Paul libertarianism talking. Those guys are against government services like USPS. As a socialist, Woody wasn’t. Anyway, it’s impossible for me to imagine him not tickled by being on a stamp!

  2. Good blogging, although I’m not sure vocal quality (or aesthetics) have a direct bearing on the “protest” value of a given song, by Woody Guthrie or anyone of his acolytes. I also think that there is a correlation between “lite-political”, that is, revolution and protest as quaint cultural artifacts from the 60s, and their eventual incorporation into the national mythology.

    Ultimately, the failures of social movements are not because Woody or Pete sang them, with or without their “fellow travellers”, or with dry or melifluous voices, but because the struggle was defused by Capitalism (see the recent NYTimes article about Oakland’s “radicalism”).

    • Thanks. No, I was by no means saying *a social movement* failed because of how things were sung and who did the singing. I was saying that under certain, to me, bogus circumstances, the music can fail — for me — as anything: music, poetry, protest, whatever.

      Although now the idea is starting to intrigue me, as I think about it here. Yes: I do think the “aesthetics,” in this case, reflect something deeper and more important politically than whether some music might be liked or disliked. I should say I understand that being bummed by the mere aesthetics of, say, the new basketball stadium in Brooklyn can be a distraction from the far more important issue of the financial corruption of government that brought that project into existence (which the Times, e.g. would barely report on). There’s a hipster-liberal, soft-left way in which bitching about the loss of some supposedly groovy aesthetic only looks away from key civic and economic issues that affect people’s lives on far more profound levels than that.

      But when radical politics get into matters subject to “aesthetics” — i.e., music — and when Guthrie himself often set such amazing standards for what might be called “the good” in that area, then ignoring the political role of aesthetics looks to me like a cop-out, a way of being hard left without having to engage in a critique that might yield conclusions more complex than “failures are ultimately always down to the struggle’s being defused by capitalism.” The folk left themselves didn’t think of the musical style as separable from the politics. They thought music was a machine that killed fascists. So that’s worth criticizing politically.

      So maybe what I find — and I know I’m not in a majority here! — kind of bogus about Joan Baez’s too-beautiful singing *does* reflect what I’d consider some deeper structural failure in the movement’s ways of constructing and framing its political and economic critique, and its action. Because it’s just a flat-out fact — to me, I mean — that when Pete, Woody, et al were taking dictation from The Daily Worker in support of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, they were 100% full of shit. We can easily see how “bad,” i.e., both politically and aesthetically inauthentic, that music was: the same mode readily lent itself to pro-USA jingoism (stuff that makes wartime pop look deep) as soon as the Soviet and CP party line changed. (And Seeger lionizers have lied ever since about that, suggesting the Almanacs change their position when Pearl Harbor was hit, not when Hitler invaded Russia.) So it doesn’t matter to me how much they redirected the mood to other causes or how much it got absorbed in certified bourgeois nonprofit culture: the mode I’m criticizing comes from an inauthenticity that is at once political *and* aesthetic. The aesthetic mode that I deride in the typical “protest” song arises straight out of a delusion, which Woody, happily, was often *not* involved in, as a songwriter or as a singer. Woody’s difference from all that is precisely what makes “Vigilante Man” and his own renditions of “This Land” and “Do Re Mi” and so many others so great both as protest and as song.

      So no: my critique was not just an aesthetic one after all! And maybe social movements *have* failed because of internal weaknesses revealed in bad music.

  3. It’s sad that today’s lefties are so distant from working people. Woody was brilliant, but never saw himself as a great musician or artist. He just did it. That purity of spirit and direct link with the folk tradition is perhaps what’s lacking in Baez and the rest. The complete Smithsonian recordings with Alan Lomax (4 volumes) are available at the public libraries, and they’re wonderful.

    • I guess I’d dissent somewhat from the idea that a distinguishing factor in Guthrie’s brilliance is a more direct connection to a folk tradition, or greater purity of heart. I think he was steeped early on in the commercially recorded and marketed “hillbilly” music of the Carters, Rodgers, Delmores, etc., whose relationship to tradition is endlessly complicated. It seems to me that the young Seeger, and then the young Baez, et al, were more involved than Guthrie was with notions of the folk and purity and so on. …

  4. I love the version of This Land Is Your Land by the late Sharon Jones. It starts with a sour brass beginning that makes you think maybe this isn’t going to be a straight reading of the song, but by the end, she’s shouting out the names of cities Riverside, California! Augusta, Georgia!

    The last two verses I hadn’t heard before. We certainly didn’t learn them in elementary school in Ohio.

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