Voice of the Other America

September 28, 2007

Forty years after his death, American protest singer Woody Guthrie still fascinates. Will Kaufman , an academic who doubles as a Guthrie tribute artist, offers his own personal take, while Lee Marshall , bottom, analyses the 'ill educated Okie' in relation to the man's great acolyte and, initially, imitator, Bob Dylan.

In March of this year I was treated to an impromptu history lesson from one very tall Prince Andrew, who leaned over me and said: "Oh, I don't agree with you. I don't agree with you at all. America was built by people who went there and had something to contribute, to give. It's only now, with all the [migrants] coming in, that your country is in danger." The occasion was a Buckingham Palace reception for Americans working in the UK, hosted by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in advance of their state visit to commemorate the founding of the Jamestown colony. It was 400 years ago that the great English migration to America began.

As I was a guest in his parents' house, I refrained from reminding the Prince that his own father, standing over there, was a migrant, as were a number of his ancestors going back to George I - all of whom came to Britain to seek better opportunities than they would have had if they had remained at home. For that matter, I was a migrant who, as a dual national, had taken the oath of allegiance to his mother and her "heirs and successors" - which I suppose meant him, too. So I shut up.

At any rate, I was saved from further awkwardness by the approach of the Queen's cousin by marriage, the Duchess of Gloucester - a fellow migrant - who politely and unnecessarily apologised for her Danish accent. I told her that I had just returned from Copenhagen myself.

"Copen-hah-gen?" she teased. "I see you've learnt your pronunciation from Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen. We would say Copen-hay-gen. But what were you doing there?"

I told her that I'd been introducing Danish university students to the music of Woody Guthrie. In response to her puzzled expression, I explained that he was an American songwriter who, back in the Thirties, wrote about the dispossessed, the Dust Bowl refugees, the migrants...

"Oh, yes," she said. "I know that was a very difficult time for America. And you sing to these students?"

I replied that I did.

"Would you sing some for me?"

I gulped and looked around - crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, admiralty, royalty, diplomats, Jerry Hall - and I launched into a verse of Guthrie's great ode to migrant labour, Pastures of Plenty:

"It's a mighty hard road that my poor hands have hoed;

My poor feet have travelled a hot, dusty road..."

I wasn't too surprised that the Duchess had never heard it. So I quickly tried the chorus of This Land Is Your Land.

"Ah," she said. "That one I know."

This was good to hear. And for the rest of the evening, it was just me and one big sloppy grin. Goddamn, I've sung Woody's songs in Buck House! I have brought Woody Guthrie to the world's greatest seat of hereditary privilege. Maybe something of the man's great heart, his empathy with the hard-hit and the hard-travelling, is seeping into the foundations of this palace right now. Maybe a few notes of his music are still floating up there around the chandeliers, like Tinkerbell - a faint echo in the ears of the powerful. Who knows, maybe Prince Andrew will wake up tomorrow morning humming Pastures of Plenty and wondering how the hell that tune got into his head. Sheesh, maybe I've had too much champagne.

Guthrie died 40 years ago next Wednesday. For the past year I have been taking his songs and his story to school and university students throughout Europe. Most have never heard of him, but some write to me with the news that they've gone out and bought a CD or two - as one said: "He's a pretty good antidote to George Bush." Others feel that Guthrie offers a reacquaintance with the poor, resilient, decent people they've met in American literature. As one Swiss student wrote to me: "I often pictured Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath while you were singing, as if Guthrie was travellin' along with the Joad family."

In Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, an Oklahoma migrant woman recalls: "When I read Grapes of Wrath, that was like reliving my whole life. I was never so proud of poor people before as I was after I read this book." This was, of course, Steinbeck's intention, similar to that of Guthrie, who wrote: "I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing... 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 how hard it's run you down or rolled over you, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are uilt, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and your work."

When I first put together my presentation, I wrote to some prominent musical figures on both sides of the Atlantic for their thoughts on the value of introducing Guthrie to a new generation of Europeans, at a time when the dominant American voices over here seemed to be those of the belligerent, the know-it-all, the messianic and the mean-spirited - in short, those with the power and influence to commandeer the global bullhorn.

Eighty-seven-year-old Pete Seeger, still swamped with daily correspondence in the wake of Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, invited me to telephone him. Seeger, who had sung and travelled with Guthrie, who had faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee and - as Ry Cooder sings of him - "stood up to tyranny with just a banjo in his hand", compared Guthrie to Robert Burns and Taras Shevchenko. "You know," he said, "Woody wrote literally thousands of songs, and they're known all over the Other America" - referring not only to Michael Harrington's description of "the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life" but also to the progressive and radical American Left that has always championed them.

Tom Paxton's response was powerfully succinct: "No one can understand the American people without listening to Woody Guthrie."

I was particularly gratified by the replies from this side of the Atlantic - from the Irish folk singer Christy Moore, who wrote: "I learned from Woody that songs of protest should be sung on the front line. It is fine to sing them in folk clubs and concert halls, but they really come to life when sung on the picket lines and at the prison gates."

Singer/songwriter Ralph McTell wrote that Guthrie had changed his life and "continues to be an inspiration", while another of England's national treasures, the folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy, called Guthrie "among the very bravest of very brave political activists", a man who "wrote about ordinary people in a way that lifts the soul". Carthy made the connection, too, between Guthrie's mid-20th century and our 21st, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt: "We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice and hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilisation." "Woody Guthrie and his songs," he said, "are as important now as they ever were."

If only Guthrie could have sung into the ear of that same Franklin D. Roosevelt who signed the Japanese-American internment order in 1940:

"You keep me in jail and you lock me in prison;

Your hospital's jammed and your crazyhouse full..."

If only he could have sung that, and more, to Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice:

"What makes your boats haul death to my people?

Nitro blockbusters, big cannons and guns?

Why doesn't your ship bring food and some clothing?

I've sure got to know, folks, I've sure got to know."

I know that I will never have the chance to sing Woody Guthrie's songs in Buckingham Palace again. But I look forward to many more years of singing them where it matters most - in the classrooms and wherever else it might do some good to hear from the Other America now and then.

Will Kaufman is reader in English and American studies at the University of Central Lancashire.

The times they were a-changin'
Lee Marshall

"I know Woody. I know Woody... I know him and met him and saw him and sang to him. I know Woody - Goddamn." Thus read a postcard from a 19-year-old Bob Dylan to his friends back in Minnesota in early 1961.

It is well known that Guthrie was a major influence on the young Dylan, who indeed headed straight to Greystone Hospital on his arrival in New York, regularly played songs for him and, by all accounts, was well received by the dying folk singer. But it is questionable how much Dylan really knew Woody, not only because he was already cripplingly disoriented from Huntington's disease, but because the Woody that Dylan knew, like the Woody that everyone knows, is not an individual but an idealised image, a cultural myth that tells us much about what we value in music.

The American folk boom of the 1930s and 1940s was mainly the product of urban middle-class activity - activists and folklorists such as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Guthrie was a notable outsider, an ill-educated Okie who had suffered personal and social misfortune.

When he arrived in New York in 1940, he was immediately welcomed by the politically minded folk community and became the emblem of the inherent creativity and nobility of ordinary Americans.

Guthrie was an Everyman figure, a representation of "the people", the embodiment of "the folk".

The young Dylan was enchanted by this romanticised figure. For a time, he adopted Guthrie's persona. He changed his voice, invented a fictitious biography and played nothing but Guthrie songs. During the early Sixties, Dylan was accepted as Guthrie's spiritual heir.

However, the 20-year gap between their arrivals in New York meant that the folk world had changed irrevocably. Folk was now part of the mass media and Dylan was subjected to the pressures of stardom in a way Guthrie never was. Rather than being just a representation of the people, Dylan was expected to be a representative of the people, to speak on behalf of his followers, to become the "spokesman for a generation".

Dylan's rejection of these demands explains his tense relationship with the folk revival that culminated in a public and messy divorce when he "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. But it is in this tension that we can see the beginnings of modern rock stardom, that contradictory mix of individual self-expression and social reflection that Dylan somehow managed to hold in balance during the mercurial mid-Sixties. Dylan's experience of stardom, however, made him aware of the difference between real individual and star image.

Compare the boyish enthusiasm of his postcard home to the following insightful (and slightly world-weary) answer from an interview in 1965. When asked if Guthrie had been his biggest influence, Dylan replied: "I don't know that I'd say that but, for a spell, the idea of him affected me quite a lot."

And the idea of Guthrie still affects us, Dylan and many others. In 1992, Columbia Records hosted a glitzy concert at Madison Square Garden to commemorate Dylan's 30th anniversary as a recording artist. An impressive list of rock royalty lined up to play their part in a Dylan karaoke.

At the end of the evening, the man himself walked on stage and, armed with just an acoustic guitar, began to play his earliest original recorded song, Song to Woody . "I'm singing you this song, but I can't sing enough," he sang to the ghost of Guthrie, "because there's not many men done the things that you done."

Lee Marshall is senior lecturer in sociology at Bristol University. His new book, Bob Dylan: The Never-Ending Star , is published by Polity Press, £14.99.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.