Last weekend friends dragged me to a Woody Guthrie tribute show where a dozen local bands performed the songs of the Folky Okie in celebration of his 100th birthday. It was a star-spangled occasion: a night of red rhetoric, white hippies, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
I would have been more open to the experience thirty years ago. Like many amateur guitar pickers, I went through a brief Woody Guthrie phase during my late teens after reading a paperback copy of his autobiography Bound for Glory. The sad, homespun tales of Woody’s childhood in the early 20th century Oklahoma boomtowns, of his land-swapping, fist-fighting father and ballad-singing, terminally-ill mother were moving and evoked a strong sense of family and place.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie has gone on to inspire multiple generations of songwriters. And new Guthrie songs seem to be coming out all the time thanks to his daughter Nora’s decision to open up the late lyricist’s archives to a few select artists, like my fellow Belleville natives Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. Tweedy, in particular, did a fine job putting Guthrie’s lyrics to music on songs like “Remember the Mountain Bed” and “Airline to Heaven.”
But for all the accolades, Woody was a far better storyteller than musician. Listening to his old recordings is — to use one of his favorite phrases — hard traveling. The listener is instantly struck by the flatness of Guthrie’s hillbilly twang, and the feebleness of his guitar playing. He never developed his technique beyond the level of beginner. As for the songwriting, nearly all of his melodies were lifted from older folk songs. Even his most enduring tune, “This Land is Your Land,” borrowed the melody to the Carter Family song “When the World’s on Fire.” Woody simply couldn’t be bothered to work up his own melodies. The tunes weren’t important anyway. He was interested only in preaching his gospel of wealth redistribution. His songs and his cornpone persona were but another way to spread his socialist propaganda to the masses, and went hand in hand with his column in The Daily Worker and his speaking engagements at Communist Party USA rallies. Guthrie was a fellow traveler first, and a musician second.
ALONG WITH HIS AFFINITY for socialism, Woody Guthrie suffered from another common malady of our age: rootlessness. He was raised in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma, but Okemah was too small to hold a giant talent like Woody Guthrie. After a lifetime of drifting, he finally ended up, not surprisingly, in New York City, where he continued to write wistfully about the poor folks he left behind in those Oklahoma Hills where he was born.
Like many fellow travelers, Woody suffered from a Messianic Complex. One is reminded of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov who said, “In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” Woody was interested only in saving the workingman in general. Nothing less deserved his time and energy. “He was for the down-trodden people,” recalled his first wife Mary. “But as far as something for himself, even for his family, it didn’t make that much difference.”
Woody’s three families were for the most part left to fend for themselves, though his first suffered most. The Friend to the Poor fathered three children by Mary Jennings (all of whom died relatively young). He routinely abandoned mother and children in their tiny north Texas shack, when they weren’t chasing after him from coast to coast. Even Pete Seeger, who visited with the first Guthrie family in Texas, was appalled by the way Woody treated his wife and kids. At one point, Mary’s mother begged Seeger: “You’ve got to make that man treat my daughter right!” But that quote hardly seems a fitting epitaph for an American Master.
Wendell Berry once wrote that a “couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word.” Woody Guthrie would have disagreed. To him, Politics were more important than his people and his place. An abstract duty to the downtrodden masses trumped his real responsibility to his home and his numerous downtrodden families.
Should it matter? Our pop cultural icons are often deeply flawed individuals with messed up priorities. Our popular culture, too, is thoroughly imbued with Leftist humbuggery. But that doesn’t mean you have to be ants at a picnic. My friends and I had a fine time at the Woody Guthrie tribute. And it was way less painful than the two Ani DiFranco shows I was dragged to.