Woody Guthrie, born in Oklahoma in 1912, left the Plains during the DustBowl and the Great Depression. In 1937, he sang his folk songs on KFVD radio in Los Angeles, songs that would also be shared via a new technology, the phonograph.
The local radio airwaves also provided Woody a forum from which he developed his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism. On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s agricultural communities, Woody proved himself a hard-hitting advocate for truth, fairness, and justice.
In 1940 he moved to New York and “became one of the principal songwriters for the Almanac Singers.” The activists included Burl Ives, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, and they used “music to attack fascism and support humanitarian and leftist causes.”
The Almanacs helped to establish folk music as a viable commercial genre within the popular music industry. A decade later, original members of the Almanacs would re-form as the Weavers, the most commercially successful and influential folk music group of the early 1950s. It was through their tremendous popularity that Woody’s songs would become known to the larger public.
In his first two years in New York, Guthrie recorded the album Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) plus a series of songs and conversations for folklorist Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress. The art form that Guthrie pioneered: protest folk.
Guthrie also wrote what is probably his most well-known song, “This Land Is Your Land.” It was a response to Irving Berlin’s late 1930s hit, “God Bless America.”
Woody knew a much different America than Berlin, who remained a wealthy man even throughout the Depression… [his lyrics] celebrated America without glossing over its imperfections or pretending that all in America were blessed equally.
According to the Kennedy Center, Guthrie revised the title and lyrics before he “debuted the song on his weekly radio show in 1944.” He also dropped two verses that criticized America’s business system:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
The Bonneville Power Administration moved Guthrie and his family west where he joined a “documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam.” This is when Guthrie composed the Columbia River Songs, which include “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done.”
Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
~ John Steinbeck
He served in both the Merchant Marine and the Army during World War II.
On 03 October 1967, Guthrie died in Queens, New York of Huntington’s disease, an incurable degenerative nerve disorder. Many of his recordings are archived in the Library of Congress.
His son, Arlo Guthrie, released an 18-minute-20-second commercial recording of “Alice’s Restaurant” that October. It became a Thanksgiving hit for WBAI radio. A true story, “Alice’s Restaurant” also became “the iconic anti-war anthem for the next generation.”
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