A little bit of music history was made in the Rodewald Suite last night. The event was a celebration of the centennial this year of the birth of Woody Guthrie at which Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave an engaging personal talk about her father’s life and music. Organised by Alun Parry, founder of Liverpool’s Woody Guthrie Folk Club that meets on the final Thursday of each month at the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street. Alun had heard that Nora was touring Europe in 2012 and took a chance on asking if she could fit in a visit to Liverpool.
As Nora explained at one point in the evening, she was eager to come to Liverpool for several reasons, one being that when Woody served in the Merchant Marine during the war he took shore leave several times in Scotland and England, and may (though this is unconfirmed) have stepped ashore in Liverpool. Another reason was that Liverpool in the 1950s was the city of the ‘Cunard Yanks’, the Liverpudlian seamen who served on the ocean liners and brought back American blues, jazz and R&B records, thus enriching the musical culture of the city. This was when a certain George Harrison was playing in a band led by Les Stewart that specialised in tunes by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy – and Woody Guthrie.
But there was another way in which Woody’s songs seeped into the repertoire of Liverpool bands: young musicians like Paul McCartney and John Lennon began messing around with guitars during the skiffle boom, heavily influenced by Lonnie Donegan, probably the most significant popularizer of songs byLeadbelly and Woody Guthrie. With this in mind, when Nora Guthrie got the invite to Liverpool, she decided to contact Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, in London to see if he could make it. He did – and provided a triumphant ending to a great night.
Alun Parry kicked off the evening with a song of his own, inspired by Woody’s statement in which he summed up the point of his songs:
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
Then Nora took the stage to give a presentation, illustrated with family photos, paintings and drawings by Woody, and pages from his notebooks. He wrote down all his lyrics, she said, because he could not memorize them. She began with the original words of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written by hand in a school notebook. ‘This Land’ was, she pointed out, one of the earliest songs he wrote – in 1940, when he was only 27 years old and had just arrived in New York. But, she asked, how did this song come to be written?
She took us right back to Woody’s beginnings in Oklahoma. He was born on July 14, 1912 in a ‘typical Wild West town’, Okemah which, as Woody later wrote
was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
– Bound For Glory
When he was a boy, Okemah was a sleepy farm town where they grew cotton out in the fields. Then as it became an oil boomtown, when he was about 8 years old, all kinds of other people were suddenly in Okemah overnight: a pretty rough and rowdy bunch of people that worked in the oil fields. The politics were rough, too: Nora noted that Oklahoma was the last state to join the union, and had the most political parties – 14 in all, mostly left-wing (though today Oklahoma is a red state, solid Republican).
Woody’s mother, Nora and his father, Charley were a middle class up and coming couple: Charley was an entrepreneur, a land dealer, young and ambitious. But the family went through an appalling sequence of tragedies that, suggested Nora, were the foundation of his empathy and compassion – not intellectual but a response to the experiences of his own family life.
Woody Guthrie’s childhood home in Okemah photographed in 1979
When Woody’s father got enough money to build a new house, it burned down before the family could move in. Then his older sister Clara was also burned in a fire and died. Within two years of that happening his mother was sent away to an insane asylum, while his father lost everything in the Depression.
We now know that Woody’s mother was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease, a neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerves and eventually leads to loss of control of the body, and death. But at the time nothing was known about it. People in the town made fun of the way she behaved. She was a victim of a disease and she was ridiculed for it, and eventually deemed insane.
Woody felt this deeply, argued Nora in her talk. Running through every single song that Woody wrote is a sense of empathy with people who are enduring hard times, whether they are homeless or hungry or whatever. That became the signature and the heart of all of his music, suggested Nora. She displayed the last photo of Woody’s mother, and drew attention to how she was holding her arms behind her back – literally holding on to her arms to control the Huntingdon’s.
Woody Guthrie in Okemah
Nora suggested that her grandmother had been important to Woody in another way: as she played piano, she would sing old Scots-Irish ballads. These long ballads were very likely the inspiration for the long ballads that he would later write.
In a very short period of time, Woody’s middle-class family life had fallen apart. By age thirteen, he was pretty much on his own with no parents – his father had left for Texas, while he stayed in Okemeh, living in a gang house with a couple of other kids on their own. In his autobiography Bound for Glory he tells of collecting garbage to get by. He was out of school and surviving on his wits. At this point, Nora said, he wanted to be an artistand he took to painting as a potential career. All of the art from his early years is gone, Nora said. One of the only portraits that still survives, to her knowledge, is one that he did of Abraham Lincoln a few years later, when he was in his twenties. It’s an oil painting that’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.
It was very hard to keep that up and pay for a $5 brush and the canvas and the oils. Then he realized that once you did a painting and you sold it once and you never saw it again, and that dollar you earned for it got spent…He realized with a song you write it once and someone says, ‘Hey, I like that song. Sing it again!’ It was really a funny, very natural understanding that songwriting was a better way to make money in the early days than painting.
After two years in the gang house decided to join his father in Pampa Texas, where he spent most of his time in the public library ‘interested in everything’:
I scratched around in the books. I carried them home by the dozens and armloads, on any subject, I didn’t care which. I wanted to look into everything a little bit, and pick out something, something that would turn me into a human being of some kind – free to work for my own self, and free to work for everybody.
– Bound for Glory
This was when he really start writing, following the principle that ‘all you can write is what you see’. What he saw first was the terrible impact of the dust storms on that part of Texas:
On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.
It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
– ‘The Great Dust Storm’
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.
I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
Buried my tractor six feet underground.
Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand.
– ‘Dust Bowl Blues’
Dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein
Like countless others, Woody left Pampa, Texas in the early 1930s for California to see if he could get work in the fruit orchards
there. When he got to the California border there were roadblocks – they were stopping people from crossing the state line. Nora elaborated:
You get to a state line and they won’t let you cross the border. You are an American citizen, this is your country and they won’t let you cross the border. It’s not another country. This is America and these are American citizens. They wouldn’t let you cross the border unless you had $50 in your pocket. But he was thinking, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m not a foreigner. I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve walked across the desert a thousand miles and you are telling me I can’t come in? He saw families being turned around and being sent back. How in the world are these people going to have $50? They don’t have anything to eat, let alone have $50 in their pockets. Woody writes in the song ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi, well you had better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee.’
Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”
Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
When Woody arrived in Los Angeles he soon had a radio show which quickly became a tremendous hit because all of the Okies had come to California, so he had the biggest audience in Los Angeles. He got 10,000 letters a week in fan mail. The producers raised his salary and made his show longer. The same thing happened, Nora said, when he moved to New York. There, too, he soon had a very successful radio show. They were paying him so much that he wrote to Alan Lomax and said, ‘they are giving me money so fast I have to sleep under it’.
Then, Nora said, the producers and the sponsors would say, ‘Tone it down on some of those songs, Woody’. But the idea of someone telling him how to do a radio show or what songs to sing – he would just walk out. He would just say, ‘I’m not doing this’.
With Woody’s arrival in New York in 1940, Nora finally reached the conclusion to the story of how ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came to be. Woody had hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York.
All kinds of things are going on. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are displaced because of the Dust Bowl and The Depression. As he is hitchhiking across America – Hollywood is in good shape and New York is in good shape, but from California to New York Island and everything in between, is really not so great. It takes him a month to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York. In every jukebox at every truck stop and every diner he kept hearing Kate Smith’s hit song ‘God Bless America’. But Woody’s experience was seeing people homeless and hungry. He was seeing people walking across the country because they had lost everything. He saw families travelling on Route 66 who had lost the farm that had been in their family for generations. So as he is hearing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio and the jukeboxes, he is thinking if God blessed America everybody would have a home and food and a job. We would be okay. He said I’m not getting it and I’m not seeing it. He finally got to New York in February 1940 and in the first week he was in a little boarding house on 43rd Street. He looked out the window and saw homeless people, and things were not so good.
So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a direct response to ‘God Bless America’ – even to the extent that the original chorus was ‘God blessed America for me’.
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
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?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the melting pot of New York, Woody for the first time was able to forge friendships with black Americans and with radical women. It was there he met Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It was there, too, he met people like Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Woody met Lomax when he performed at a ‘Grapes of Wrath Evening’, a benefit for the John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers. Woody Guthrie’s ballad ‘Tom Joad’, recorded in 1940, was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the successful John Ford film adaptation, released in 1940. The seventeen-verse song summarized Tom Joad’s story, concluding:
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.”
Nora said that after Steinbeck heard Woody’s ballad, he sent him an acerbic note: ‘You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me 500 pages to say’. She was asked from the floor whether Woody and Steinbeck ever met – she thought not. But on the Internet, Steinbeck’s son, Thom, is quoted as saying
My father met Woody several times. There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck loved all American music. Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.
Steinbeck later wrote, in the 1960s:
Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre 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 will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967)
In New York Woody began work on his autobiography, Bound For Glory, completed with the support of his second wife Marjorie Mazia, whose disciplined approach came from her job as an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School (leaving notes on the fridge like ‘finish chapter 5 today!’). The book was first published in 1943, and I still remember the thrill, as a teenager, of reading Woody’s larger than life narrative told in vivid and energetic dialect.
During the Second World War, Woody joined the Merchant Navy with his friend and singing partner, Cisco Houston. He washed dishes on a the troop ship which carried troops to the Normandy beach in early July 1944. Later, Woody was routed through London and Glasgow, before returning to the United States. While in London, he went to the BBC where he was given the opportunity to sing on Children’s Hour. After some autobiographical anecdotes, he was recorded singing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.
In 1946 Woody and moved to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with Marjorie and his daughter, Cathy. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.Three other children were born and grew up here – Joady, Arlo and Nora. In her talk, Nora vividly recalled this period of her childhood, when most of the year would be spent on the beach.
Woody with (left to right) Nora, Joady and Arlo, 1951
This was a productive song-writing period in which Woody wrote many songs for children, often inspired by Cathy, songs which he recorded with producer Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines, such as Deportees, his response to a plane crash in 1948 in which 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California being deported back to Mexico, were not named but simply referred to as ‘deporteees’ in press reports:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees
In 1947 Cathy died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to Arlo. Nora movingly recalled how Woody, who looked after the children during the day while Marjorie worked, would record Cathy’s funny and childish remarks in a notebook, one of those now in the Guthrie archives, entitled ‘Cathy Says’.
By the late 1940s, Woody’s health was declining, and his behaviour becoming erratic. In 1952 it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease . Increasingly unable to control his muscles and bodily functions, Woody was hospitalized from 1956 until 1966. Nora described how her mother and the children would visit Woody in hospital every Sunday, until finally the visits became too distressing and it was decided to bring Woody home at weekends. She talked as well about the first time that the young Bob Dylan turned up at their house to see the songwriter who had inspired him (she turned him away, but Arlo invited him in). Dylan later wrote (in Chronicles) what Guthrie’s songs meant for him:
The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.
Woody died on October 3, 1967. ‘I’m a common-ist’ is how he used to describe himself, believing that people working together were a more powerful force than one.
After Nora Guthrie’s presentation, musicians took to the stage to perform songs by Guthrie and other writers. Emma Runswick and Josh Cartwright sang a cracking verse by a poet I’d never heard of before – Aaron Kramer. ‘In Contempt’ was written in 1950 when people were being jailed for refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of being ‘in contempt of Congress’. The words are as relevant today as when they were written. Here, for example, they are used as counterpoint to a report on the Israeli ‘security fence’.
Build high build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
Who hold you in contempt build wide
That all the bad be locked inside
The birds who still insist on song
The sunlit streams still running strong
The flowers a-blazing every hue
All are in contempt of you
When you have seized the gallant few
Whose glory casts a shade on you
How can you now go home with ease
Jangling your heavy dungeon keys
The parents dreaming still of peace
The playful children, the wild geese
Who still must fly the mountains to
All are in contempt of you
When you have seized both moon and sun
And jailed the poems one by one
And trapped each trouble-making breeze
Then you must throw away your keys
So let us hope the day will come
When man adores the rising sun
Empty jails and free to do
With no one in contempt of you
Then it was the turn of Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, who gave us powerful renditions of Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’, followed by a trio of Leadbelly songs – ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (with Nora called on stage to join in the choruses). On these songs, many popularised in Britain in versions by Lonnie Donegan, Pete sounded uncannily like his father.
In a resounding finale, all the night’s performers joined forces for a rousing version of ‘Union Maid’. It had been a great show – absolutely unmissable.
- Woody Guthrie at 100: the return of a pariah (Billy Bragg in The Guardian)
- Woody Guthrie still inspires, 100 years on from his birth (Ed Vulliamy in The Guardian)