Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The life and times of Woody Guthrie: an American folk music legend

Woody Guthrie's 1942 New Year's Resolutions

Woody Guthrie is not on the YouTube Top 20 
by Mike Marcellino

My night began, interestingly enough with rediscovering the folk music and life of legendary songwriter and traveler Woody Guthrie.  Born in 1912 in a small Oklahoma town, Okemah, which is named after an Kickapoo Indian chief.  In a 1944 interview with the BBC Children's Hour, Woody recalls his childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma where he was born, growing up with "one-third Indians, one-third Negroes and one-third whites." Woody was "washing dishes," he says, aboard a Liberty Ship in the Merchant Marines.  Here's a video of the BBC show where Woody also talks about his traveling cross country during The Depression where he picked up folk songs from those folks and started writing and later recording his own songs.

It began to sink in that Woody Guthrie began the great American folk music revival that continues today, more than 80 years later.  Woody Guthrie would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, on July 14th. In this live performance for the BBC, Woody sings two traditional folk songs about trains (I love trains and I gather Woody hopped some freights in his time.) He sings "Wasbash Cannonball" and "900 Miles": :

.I've been to Okemah and it hasn't changed much but the newspaper is thriving, contrary to the national demise of news papers.  It's a pretty desolate, country where violent snow and rain storms roll across the plains. Woody, is probably best known for his song "This Land Is My Land"  which he wrote in 1940 partly over his love of the song "America the Beautiful."  In two versus, he writes about the inequality in America among the classes of people.

"As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?" 

Guthrie also perform at a benefit for migrant farm workers in 1940 put on by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers. Guthrie had gone to New York City where, according to reports, he was embraced by the leftist folk music community, where he met Pete Seeger and the two became friends.  Woody performed on CBS radio in New York City, but soon he traveled west back to California where he had performed on radio shows.

Woody playin for some folks

None of Woody Guthrie's songs is among the Top 20 YouTube videos (even though it's the 100th Anniversary of his birth and he gave birth to modern American folks music). Well, that's no surprise, even Bob Dylan's top viewed video on YouTube is a far cry from the Top 20 with only 6 million views.  Lady Gaga has 11 songs on the Top 20 with a total of, it's hard to fathom, 1.1 BILLION views.  ("Bad Romance" has 466 million views alone.  My take on "Bad Romance" is "bad song" and band video".  Actually, mysteriously I have somehow lost the ability on YouTube to actually get a list of the Top 20 videos by views.  I just stumbled into it pressing and clicking.  Well, I did see Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" has 38 million views.  Marley, of course, is a legendary reggae folk musician from Jamaica whose music and life was deeply into social causes.  Marley died in 1981 at age 36.

Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley

"I'm just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival
Said he was a Buffalo Soldier
Win the war for America"

"Buffalo Soldier" written by Bob Marley and Noel G. "King Sport" Williams and recorded in 1983.  To Marley it was a song about the oppression against Africans brought to America as slaves.  The blacks who fought in the U. S. Cavalry in the later 1800s to subdue the Indians were known as Buffalo Soldiers.  Marley likened their "fight" as Buffalo Soldiers as a fight for survival and a symbol of black resistance.

In the late 1940s, Guthrie became ill. His behavior was erratic.  He was first diagnosed with alcoholism and schizophrenia, but in 195s they determined he suffered from the very debilitating Huntington's disease.

In 1961, Bob Dylan traveled to New York City to perform and visit Guthrie, his idol.  Dylan visited Guthrie at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Brooklyn and the two hit it off fairly well.  But, on his last visit Guthrie didn't recognize Dylan.   Guthrie was confined in several mental hospitals in New York City until his death in 1967.

You may wonder by now, what does this mean, Mike?

It means that folk musicians like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley are more popular than YouTube may tell us.  To my knowledge, there aren't any videos of Guthrie performing, though there are some live recordings.

Still, the times me be changing again, to borrow from Dylan's popular folk song.  I think the millions of people protesting against class inequalities in the United States (Occupy Wall Street) and around the world (the Arab Spring uprisings) may be in tune with Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma Cowboy, whether they've ever heard of him, read his words or listened to his songs.

Here's a link to listen to more Woody Guthrie songs on Smithsonian Folkways website:

Smithsonian Folkways

(I also highly recommend the collection of Woody Guthrie unheard lyrics that Wilco and Billy Bragg recorded on albums Mermaid Avenue I and II (1998 and 2000):

One of my favorite Guthrie songs, "Pretty Boy Floyd" which was left out of his first and most popular album, "Dustbowl Ballads" recorded in 1940.  Here's some great lines from Woody's song, capturing the Oklahoma band robber and the times:

"If you'll gather 'round me, children, a story I will tell
'Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well."

"As through this world you travel, you'll meet some funny men/ Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen."

Floyd, after outlaw John Dillinger was shot to death by lawmen, was America's Public Enemy No. 1 in 1934.  While Floyd robbed banks, he was never convicted of murder though he was suspected to killing an Akron, Ohio policeman, two bootleggers and an ATF agent.  On the other hand, some view Floyd as a victim of the hard times and an outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, like Jesse James, America's most famous outlaw who robbed banks and trains, certainly killed some folks but never convicted of murder either.  Have a listen to "Pretty Boy Floyd" written and performed by Woody Guthrie:

To wind up this folk tale, here's a wonderful tribute to Woody Guthrie by Bob Dylan, "Song to Woody" recorded on Dylan's first album in 1962.

So much for that, as apparently Sony records has taken down the YouTube video of Dylan's original version on his first album, "Bob Dylan."

So, someone, maybe the guy that posted the video record in the first place, said he paid for the album and had a right to "broadcast it."  He suggested the millions of Dylan fans boycott Sony.  Not a bad idea.

But, here's an even more interesting version of "Song to Woody" by Dylan, recorded in 1970, after the Beatles broke up, accompanied by George Harrison.  Here's the description by the YouTube poster on January 4, 2012:

"Columbia Studio 3, New York City, 1st May 1970. After The Beatles' break-up, on April 1970, George Harrison went to New York City where he met Bob Dylan at Columbia Studios. With other musicians (Charlie Daniels on bass guitar and backup vocals, Billy Mundi on drums and Bob Johnson on piano) they recorded some songs, many of them written by Dylan. George played guitar and sang backup vocals while Dylan sang lead vocals and played guitar."

Unfortuantely, i seems that Bob Dylan or his armies keep removing any really cool videos of him singing so i will have to find another version of "Song to Woody"!  You would think that if Woody Guthrie was really Dylan's hero he share his tribute to Woody.

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