Tuesday, March 24, 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 (when you would have rather been outside playing before you got that good dose of religion which made the hymns make sense), like the bits of music you picked up in school from silly children’s songs in elementary school to that latter time in junior high school when you got your first does of the survey of the American and world songbook once a week for the school year, or more pleasantly your coming of age music, maybe like me that 1950s classic age of rock and roll when 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 (and got full program play complete with folk DJs and for a time on television via the Hootenanny show) that is not where I first heard or learned the song. No for that one song I think the time and place was in seventh grade in junior high school where Mr. Dasher would each week in Music Appreciation 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, rock and roll) 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 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, Pete Seeger, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) 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. Almost everybody covered him then, wrote poems and songs about him, sat at his feet in order to learn the simple way that he took song to entertain the people with.
It was not until some time later that I got the drift of his early life, the life of a nomadic troubadour singing and writing his way across the land. That is what the serious folk singers were trying to emulate, that keep on moving 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. 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 true 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 called America and how this land was ours, if we knew how to keep it. No wonder I remembered that song chapter and verse.