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. Continue reading