An American Master

“Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire 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.” — John Steinbeck; quoted in Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life

Kerrie and I sat transfixed to a great show last night on PBS – the American Masters documentary of Woody Guthrie. To say that this man lived every inch of his music is obvious – another in a long line of great musicians that took everything outside of their craft for granted and poured every ounce of their life into creating music that still carries on today. Music that can still seem relevant today.

Guthrie was an amazing man – a real innovator in folk music. As he rose, the genre rose. As he fell, so did his contemporaries. Guthrie was one of the first to openly play with and befriend African Americans (this is during the WWII period, when segregation was still strictly enforced) and was a leading voice in union and pro-labor songs. He was the voice of his generation’s working class.

He championed socialistic views and rallied against he exploitation of workers. He wrote songs about living life on the road, about the American dream, and about the unions that were making changes throughout the country. He wrote an album based on John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and the song “Tom Joad,” based on a main character, caused Steinbeck to wonder how Guthrie could so perfectly sum up his entire story in 17 stanzas when it took him two years to write the book.

Guthrie loved his music, and he loved his children. He wasn’t the same after his daughter died after a household fire accident. He withdrew and was never the same again. But the damage had already been done, so to speak. Guthrie had laid the groundwork that would keep folk alive through a tumultuous time of popular, issueless music. And his seeds sprouted into a new generation of folk musicians, including Bob Dylan as well as his son Arlo Guthrie, that worked to continue the legend that folk music had become.

Woody Guthrie told us that this land was our land. He explained the need for unions, and lamented on the losses during hard times in the Midwest. He wrote children’s songs. He wrote ballads. He changed a generation’s thinking about what it was like to be American, to live in the Free World and have to work for every dollar.

Woody Guthrie died of Hutchinson’s disease. Near the end of his life, Guthrie couldn’t even speak – he could only wink once for yes and twice for no. Both Kerrie and I wondered how it was that a man who lived for words, who wrote constantly, throwing the pages to the floor in a hurry to start another, who crafted songs that still stand the test of time, that show the true meaning of living during the Depression, in the Dust Bowl, working for a union and fighting fascism, how a person who was built up on language, who loved through language and fought for language and lost through language, could die not being able to say a single thing, too sick to write, too sick to speak.

After all he had lived through, what would Woody Guthrie’s last words have been? What would he have thought of Bob Dylan? Of the Mermaid Avenue remakes by Wilco and Billy Bragg? What would he have thought of this world?

His silence, unfortunately, continues on. Except in his music. That, thankfully, is still alive today.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 13th, 2006