It was not my ambition to become a musician. It was my mother’s, who majored in music and piano at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. When I was in seventh grade I was handed a trumpet and enrolled in school band and private lessons. But what I really loved was singing, and when my older sister’s boyfriend came over one evening to serenade her with a Gordon Lightfoot song in 1961, I couldn’t shake the image of this jeans clad teenager strumming and singing with ease and suaveness. This was my “cool.”
Lightfoot was the first of many who I discovered on the folk scene, though they were not easy to come by in the culturally deprived river factory towns of Eastern Iowa. I read Carl Sandburg and romanticized the industrial toughness of blue collar work and the wandering life of the traveling day-worker and hobo. In 1963 my younger sister received a $14 Silvertone guitar for her birthday. I picked it up, learned a few chords from a schoolmate and she never saw her guitar again. I discovered the songs of Woody Guthrie on a Kingston Trio record my parents bought with the family’s first hi-fi. It took me a while to get to the Asch recordings of Woody Guthrie, but when I did, I was completely hypnotized and immediately began listening to every recording I could get my hands on and read almost everything he wrote that was published. I saw him as America’s literary genius outsider. When you’re a teenager, outsider is everything. At age 17, I traded in my trumpet for a Guild and broke my mother’s heart.
Though I never planned on it, the romance of the industrial life became real to me when I went to work in a factory in Waterloo, supporting a baby daughter and a wife, who was getting her college degree. I became immersed in union politics and Woody Guthrie took on more meaning. Music and the labor movement were inseparable to me. I was singing his songs and the songs he sang with the Almanac singers two decades before my time. It was as if Woody was my guardian angel as I began experimenting with songwriting with the objective of adding to the mythology of the folksongs that came before me. That’s what had been happening for a full decade before I discovered the folk song movement. Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie and of course, Bob Dylan.
Woody didn’t invent the twentieth century art of the topical folk ballad. Others were fine practitioners. Just one strain was the singers from the Appalachian coal fields. Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning and Jim Garland were doing exactly what Woody Guthrie was doing. But Woody was amazingly prolific and versatile and set off a spark when he came to New York to meet the intelligentsia of Greenwich Village. Moe Asch and Alan Lomax understood the gravity of what Woody was spreading around and they immortalized it on vinyl. The folk revival of the 40s and 50s would have been lackluster without the input of Woody Guthrie.
There is nothing in the record to indicate that Guthrie was ever a member of the musicians’ union. But he was steeped in the labor movement and did much to contribute to the myth that it was a singing movement. For the most part it wasn’t. But the power of the songs left an indelible mark. Woody, with his creations, raised the working class to heroic stature with songs like Deportees, Hard Travelin’, Pastures of Plenty and Roll On Columbia. He was the quintessential Everyman socialist, democrat, anti-fascist, patriotic, hard scrabble unionist that caused John Steinbeck to write, “He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people.”
Every singer songwriter who ever strapped a guitar around his or her shoulders owes a great debt to Woody Guthrie, whether they know it or not. Without Guthrie there would be no Dylan, no Beatles, no Springsteen. When Dylan fused rock and roll with folk he did it with Woody Guthrie’s welding arc. I suspect that’s why so many of the great rockers pay such great homage to Guthrie.
It is said that Woody wrote This Land Is Your Land in critical response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, it could be said that he was the twentieth century’s second Irving Berlin. He was just as prolific and influential. He, more than anyone, gave license to songwriters to find strength in being hard-edged and unpolished, creating a new American songbook. But more, he inspired generations with his personal story, which began and ended in tragedy, while maintaining an undefeatable optimism. I would submit that in our current epoch, there is nothing more necessary.