Woody Guthrie: One Hundred Years, One Thousand Songs

Tomorrow, July 14, marks the one hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth.

Sepia-toned photograph of Woody Guthrie with guitar
Woody Guthrie / Sid Grossman / Gelatin silver print, c. 1946-1948 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / © Miriam Grossman Cohen

Woody Guthrie was America’s first rambling, rocking, rolling, and folksy claimant to the soil. He was a knight on a quest, a soldier on a mission. When he sang, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” he took a vested interest in his own part of that possession. Guthrie knew America’s highways and its people as well as the itinerant minstrels of medieval Europe knew the paths of the pilgrims. Guthrie was the bard of the Okie, that migratory being from Oklahoma who drifted to California during the ravages of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. He chronicled the times in song, but Guthrie was also an artist and a writer.

Guthrie’s songs pleaded the case of the common man. Ballads such as Tom Joad illustrate the fight against poverty and injustice, while depicting Americans in the struggle to survive in difficult times. The final refrain of the ballad Tom Joad is an example of the thin hope for a better life:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain't free.
Wherever men are fightin' for their rights,
That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma.
That's where I'm a-gonna be.

Guthrie didn’t storm through the United States; he took his time, going place to place, by whatever means he could afford, listening to the problems of the people and pouring their trials and their tears into his reams of paper. His soul was besieged by a communist optimism that led him to reinvest his success back into new problems and new communities. He went almost any place where he felt his words might gain enough purchase to bring attention to the disparate plights of those who suffered on the perimeter.  He did this until his body stopped allowing him to do so.

His songs would be voiced in the sixties by such groups as The Animals (“The House of the Rising Sun”) and, much later, by Billy Bragg, who reinterpreted Woody’s lyrics into music that was also folksy, sympathetic, and simple. Bragg’s arrangement of Guthrie’s California Stars has become a cult classic. The lyrics describe a golden moment in the Okie’s otherwise hostile reception in the beautiful Pacific Canaan:

I’d like to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars
I’d love to feel your hand touching mine
And tell me why I must keep working on
Yes, I’d give my life to lay my head tonight
On a bed of California stars

Even in the darkest times, he implies, there are magic stretches that burn through the darkness of the human spirit and surrender the loveliest glimpses of what can be. It is, again, akin to the medieval world when all is gray and unknown, but occasionally, the random beauty of place meets the random passions of people. He writes of the moments describing the quest of the grail, not the moments when the grail is within grasp, nor of the moments when the grail is completely lost. Woody Guthrie’s moment was always the moment of hope.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, named after Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the presidential candidate who would eventually win the election of 1912—though it is doubtful they would have much to share if they were ever in the same room—was born 100 years ago on July 14, 1912.

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits