Bruce Springsteen sings Woody Guthrie’s, “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
Daily Archives: July 14, 2010
Woody Guthrie. Today marks his birthday. Time to celebrate a little and look back on such a great life.
Yup, Woody Guthrie would be 98 years old today. Simply speaking his name conjures up so many images and such an everlasting spirit. Spirit that never dies.
Woody was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie on July 14th, this very day all those years ago, in Okemah, Oklahoma. His birthplace is no museum, but there are photos of a tilted, tired ramshackle cabin in the Oklahoma woods. Named after the then-governor of New Jersey , he would many years later awe and inspire another similar spirit who just happened to be from New Jersey – his name, Bruce Springsteen.
The circle always goes unbroken.
He had a hard scrabble childhood and experienced even tougher times when a good portion of this country turned into an economically wrecked, environmentally ruined dust bowl in 1919. Woody had dropped out of school in fourth grade; a real hillbilly who never taught himself to play guitar and harmonica and never wanted anything more than to wake people up to the injustices and intolerance he saw around him. He joined the so-called “Okies” and took to the road with his first wife Mary – destination The Promised Land, California.
He started getting his message out by going on the radio with a woman co-host named “Lefty Lou” Crissman. Their radio show was a mix of corny jokes, political commentary and music, of course. In the late 1930’s, woody signed up as a member of the Communist Party and he walked it like he talked it (or more frequently sang it.) He sang about the downtrodden fellow Americans who simply wanted to live. He sang about immigrants who nobody seemed to give a damn about. He sang about rambling gamblers and crooked politicians and bankers. He sang about what it would be like if Jesus Christ was alive today. Bruce Springsteen recently said during a live performance that if Woody Guthrie were alive, “he’d have a lot to sing about.” Indeed.
His influence or place in the chain of song and humanity cannot be overestimated. His voice may seem a bit too hillbilly for some ears, but the words he sang are nothing but truth. Without Woody Pete Seeger might not have had the courage to sing, “We Shall Overcome.” Without Woody, Bob Dylan might not have had the courage to sing “Masters Of War” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Withouth Woody, Bruce Springsteen might not have had the courage to release Nebraska and sing about the same things that Woody cared about on subsequent albums. Without Woody, Tommy Morello might not have the courage to play a guitar with the words, “Arm The Homeless” on it.
Without Woody, we would be a much lesser nation and world..
On his guitar, Woody Guthrie plastered a bumper sticker that said “This Guitar Kills Fascists” and he lived that message, singin’ out with fever to slay all those who would deny the freedom and dignity of the working man, He wrote his most notorious song, “This Land Is Your Land,” subtitled “God Blessed America, an angry response to the jingoistic Irving Berlin hit, “God Bless America.”
He saw the truth behind the lies, he called bullshit when he saw it and he may have been the bravest man to ever perform. He was tremendously prolific, always watching, always listening, always trying to affect change. In his archives there exists literally thousands of lyrics without music and unfinished songs, many of which are still being re-invented by bands like Wilco and artists like Billy Bragg.
His coughed out the final year of his life in a series of psychiatric hospitals (where they cruelly sent not just the terminally insane but also the hopelessly sick) after contracting Huntington’s Disease, which eventually killed him. Bob Dylan traveled from Minnesota to New Jersey to visit Woody, Dylan unable to believe that a man who had worked so hard and moved mountains for social change could be so alone and Woody happy to have a visitor. So sad that we live in a society that abandons the sick – even geniuses like Woody Guthrie.
But we celebrate him today, every chance we get, and today is as good a chance as any. Woody Guthrie left behind a musical legacy and a catalogue of music a couple of miles long. His life was always about caring more about the other guy that you did yourself. That’s a lesson we might all be reminded of today.
Happy Birthday Woody. Wherever you might be, have a big old swig out of the jug for me. Maybe a couple of swigs.
Among the many films that I’ve watched in the last several months, the Musicumentary “It Might Get Loud,” is among the most intriguing and compelling. In case you’re not familiar with the basic concept, the filmmakers thought it would be interesting (and man, were they correct) to bring together three different guitar players, all of a different and distinct style, orientation, background and, even, generation. The three chosen were Jack White, he of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and other amalgamations, classic rock God Jimmy Page, who’s strumming for Led Zeppelin is nothing short of iconic and legendary, and finally my personal favorite of the trio The Edge, guitarist and zen master for U2.
The film is both a rumination on the nature and definition of the electric guitar; how it’s made, how it’s played, why it is so integral to the sound of a band (Quick, think of a band without and electric guitar….yes, Keane qualifies, but they probably use studio musicians to make their records), as well as a bit of a performance piece. First, the lives of each of these three men are outlined, with each narrating their own personal journeys, and then the three guitar heroes converge in a kind of guitar circle jerk. Each man puts his chops on display. Archival footage of each in concert over the years is shown. Jokes are trades. Sarcasm and wit are used to both build up and, in a few cases, cast a few arrows.
And then, when the guitars are taken apart and put back together and all the tricks are revealed, it’s finally time for The Edge, Jimmy and Jack to jam. And jam they do, playing bits of their own songs alone and together and finally pulling out an old chestnut to rock out together on from beginning to end (Hint: It’s a song that you’ll instantly know but it’s not by any of these chaps.)
What results is a homage to the guitar and a deconstruction of what the guitar essentially does musically and how important it has been in the evolution of blues and rock and roll. It also just plain fun to see these rock idols interact on a soundstage….somewhere in the world, all the time watching the awe they have for one another and the love they have for playing guitar. This is essential viewing for any fan of rock and roll; absolutely riveting for anyone who ever loved a guitar solo, a total blast for those about to rock (and we do salute you.)
At the beginning of the filming when asked what he expects to come of the gathering, Jack White quips comically that he thinks “a fist fight may break out.” But in the end it’s a love in, a celebration of these artists and the axes they hang around their necks.
And yeah, it does get goddamned loud. And glorious. And, for music lovers, sublime.
Well, friends and amigos, it’s time to get back to the blog; back to trying to record in words the world I see as I make my way and back to sharing with you (my readers) the things that make this journey so full of bliss.
It’s been several months so I won’t attempt to fill in the blanks. Rather, it is my intention to pick up beginning this evening with some thoughts about what life is like NOW. Along with that I’ll probably tell you about a few of the films I’ve seen, books I’ve read, friends I’ve met, hills I’ve climbed and challenges that lie ahead. My aim is to inspire you to search out your own experience and find your own bliss, and then share that with your readers and friends. I wish to become a link in that never-ending chain of life and love and experience. My desire is to more consistently provide you with some glimpses of the road I travel and the people I meet. The road is long and the people are always friendly and fascinating and I hope that if I can muster the discipline and you keep coming back then we will both revel in godliness of the details and the lights of the city up on ahead.