Friday, June 05, 2015
This Land IS Your Land- With Folk Troubadour Woody Guthrie In Mind.
Some songs, no, let’s go a little wider, some music sticks with you from an early age which even fifty years later you can sing the words out chapter and verse. Like those church hymns that you were forced to sit through with your little Sunday best suit or best dress on when you would have rather been outside playing, or maybe doing anything else but sitting in that forlorn pew, before you got that good dose of religion drilled into by Sunday schoolteachers, parents, hell and brimstone reverends which made the hymns make sense. Like the bits of music you picked up in school from silly children’s songs in elementary school (Farmer In The Dell, Old MacDonald, Ring Around Something) to that latter time in junior high school when you got your first dose of the survey of the American and world songbook once a week for the school year when you learned about Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, classic guys, Stephen Foster and a lot on stuff by guys named Traditional and Anonymous. Or more pleasantly your coming of age music, maybe like me that 1950s classic age of rock and roll when a certain musician told Mr. Beethoven and his ilk to move on over certain songs were associated with certain rites of passage, mainly about boy-girl things. One such song from my youth, and maybe yours too, was Woody Guthrie surrogate “national anthem,” This Land is Your Land. (Surrogate in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America in the throes of the Great Depression that came through America, came through his Oklahoma like a blazing dust ball wind).
Although I had immersed myself in the folk minute scene of the early 1960s as it passed through the coffeehouses and clubs of Harvard Square that is not where I first heard or learned the song (and got full program play complete with folk DJs on the radio telling you the genesis of a lot of the music if you had the luck to find them when you flipped the dial on your transistor radio or the air was just right and for a time on television, long after the scene had been established in the underground and some producer learned about it from his grandkids, via the Hootenanny show, which indicated by that time like with the just previous “beat” scene that you were close to the death-knell of the folk moment). No for that one song the time and place was in seventh grade in junior high school, down at Myles Standish in Carver where I grew up, when Mr. Dasher would each week in Music Appreciation class teach us a song and then the next week expect us to be able to sing it without looking at a paper. He was kind of a nut for this kind of thing, for making us learn songs from difference genres (except the loathed, his loathed, our to die for, rock and roll which he thought, erroneously and wastefully he could wean us from with this wholesome twaddle) like Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home, or Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade and stuff like that. So that is where I learned it.
Mr. Dasher might have mentioned some information about the songwriter or other details on these things but I did not really pick up on Woody Guthrie’s importance to the American songbook until I got to that folk minute I mentioned where everybody revered him (including most prominently Bob Dylan who sat at his knee, literally, Pete Seeger, the transmission belt from the old interest in roots music to the then new interest, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott who as an acolyte made a nice career out of worshipping at that shrine) not so much for that song but for the million other songs that he produced seemingly at the drop of a hat before the dreaded Huntington’s disease got the better of him. He spoke of dust bowl refugees of course, being one himself, talked of outlaws and legends of outlaws being a man of the West growing up on such tales right around the time Oklahoma was heading toward tranquil statehood and oil gushers, talked of the sorrow-filled deportees and refugees working under the hot sun for some gringo Mister, spoke of the whole fellahin world if it came right down to it. Spoke, for pay, of the great man-made marvels of the West and how those marvels tamed the wilds. Spoke too of peace and war (that tempered by his support for the American communists, and their line which came to depend more and more on the machinations of Joe Stalin and his Commissariat of Foreign Affairs), and great battles in the Jarama Valley in Spain where it counted. Hell, wrote kids’ stuff too just like that Old MacDonald stuff we learned in school.
The important thing though is that almost everybody covered Woody then, wrote poems and songs about him (Dylan a classic Song to Woody well worth reading and hearing on one of his earliest records), affected his easy ah shucks mannerisms, sat at his feet in order to learn the simple way, three chords mostly, recycled the same melody on many songs so it was not that aspect of the song that grabbed you but the sentiment, that he gave to entertain the people, that vast fellahin world mentioned previously (although in the 1960s folk minute Second Coming it was not the downtrodden and afflicted who found solace but the young, mainly college students in big tent cities and sheltered college campuses who were looking for authenticity, for roots).
It was not until sometime later that I began to understand the drift of his early life, the life of a nomadic troubadour singing and writing his way across the land for nickels and dimes and for the pure hell of it (although not all of the iterant hobo legend holds up since he had a brother who ran a radio station in California and that platform gave him a very helpful leg up which singing in the Okie/Arkie “from hunger” migrant stoop labor camps never could have done. That laconic style is what the serious folk singers were trying to emulate, that “keep on moving” rolling stone gathers no moss thing that Woody perfected as he headed out of the played-out dustbowl Oklahoma night, wrote plenty of good dustbowl ballads about that too, evoking the ghost of Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s’ The Grapes Of Wrath as he went along. Yeah, you could almost see old Tom, beaten down in the dustbowl looking for a new start out in the frontier’s end Pacific, mixing it up with braceros-drivers, straw bosses, railroad “bulls,” in Woody and making quick work of it too.
Yeah, Woody wrote of the hard life of the generations drifting West to scratch out some kind of existence on the land, tame that West a bit. Wrote too of political things going on, the need for working people to unionize, the need to take care of the desperate Mexico braceros brought in to bring in the harvest and then abused and left hanging, spoke too of truth to power about some men robbing you with a gun others with a fountain pen, about the beauty of America if only the robber barons, the greedy, the spirit-destroyers would let it be. Wrote too about the wide continent from New York Harbor to the painted deserts, to the fruitful orchards, all the way to the California line, no further if you did not have the do-re-mi called America and how this land was ours, the whole fellahin bunch of us, if we knew how to keep it. No wonder I remembered that song chapter and verse.