Now Spinning: Woody Guthrie

“I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling.

I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.

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 and rolled over you, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

Woody Guthrie

Welcome to Box Full of Records – a new music blog where we’ll spotlight specific vinyl releases old and new, with a focus on uncovering old overlooked gems like the Guthrie speech above.

Those words from Woody Guthrie are included as a spoken introduction to ‘This Land Is Your Land’ on Folkways 1956 Bound For Glory release. We’ll kick things off by diving into that one today.

Though one LP can only capture so much of an artist who reputedly wrote over one thousand songs, it’s hard to imagine a better single album collection than this mix of classics interspersed with prose from Woody’s diaries narrated by Will Geer. The narratives resemble the writings in Guthrie’s Bound For Glory autobiography and rival the music in transporting the listener back in time to another world. And as much as that world has changed in the seventy-odd years since these songs were written, it is downright chilling to the bone how truly they still ring out. Is anyone in 2019 writing songs that address the crisis at the U.S. and Mexico border better than Woody’s ‘Vigilante Man’, recorded in 1940?

‘Why does a Vigilante man
Carry that sawed off shotgun in his hand?
Would he shoot his brother and sister down?
I (have) rambled around from town to town;
And they herded us around like a wild herd of cattle;
Was that the Vigilante men?

Woody Guthrie

‘Do Re Mi’ is equally jarring in its representation of class division and restricted access to the American Dream, while ‘Pastures Of Plenty’ tells a Grapes of Wrath-influenced tale of migrant farmers – with the only difference today being the fact that those jobs now go largely to undocumented immigrant workers whose path to legal immigration is ripe with near-insurmountable challenges.

Woody’s ‘Jesus Christ’ proves that when Kris Kristofferson penned ‘Jesus Was A Capricorn (Owed To John Prine)’, Woody’s name would have been at least as appropriate a subtitle. With lines like, ‘If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee/They would lay poor Jesus in His grave’, Guthrie’s writing remains at least as direct and daring as anything that has followed. The album closes with Woody’s final promise and overall summary of his career, ‘There’s a better world that’s a-coming/I’ll tell you why’. Not only did Woody spotlight the harsh realities that the day’s pop culture ignored, but with a prophetic trustworthy voice full of earth and dust, he assured us that he would fight these injustices he sang about.

While Woody’s music remains the centerpiece, the spoken segments are full of brilliant moments, never more so than preceding the ultimate Woody Guthrie song, ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ Particularly in today’s world of social media and celebrity-focused culture, it’s never been easier for one to feel ‘too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.’ Simply reread Woody’s vicious attack on ‘songs that run you down’ and substitute the word ‘songs’ with ‘social media’… eerie. One can only wonder what Woody Guthrie would make of today’s world, but for those who have been knocked for a dozen loops, Woody understands, and he is still one of the most powerful voices for the downtrodden. As someone who suffers from crippling bouts of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, I’ve long realized that listening to Woody can make everything a bit better and less hopeless. Why? The answers are all on this album; acknowledgement and anger at stark realities and inequalities combined with an unabashed determination to not only survive but fix this broken world into something better, delivered in a voice he describes as ‘like the ash cans of the early morning, like the cabdrivers cursing at one another, like the longshoremen yelling, like the cowhands whooping, and like the lone wolf barking.’

Go dig through the used boxes at your local record store and you just might be able to find yourself a copy. Or check out Discogs where several are currently available. The Library Of Congress recordings released by Folkways feature some of the best audio quality of Guthrie’s work and make sure your copy includes the transportive booklet (available to view online thanks to the Smithsonian) featuring Guthrie’s lyrics and writings along with drawings and wonderful liner notes from his former collaborator in the Almanac Singers, Millard Lampell, who sums up the collection better than I possibly could:

‘Woody’s songs have a way of taking hold, because they speak in the voice of the people that you can’t beat down, you can’t scare and you can’t starve out. They are songs with the rhythm of work in them, with the echo of anger against poverty and meanness. Songs filled with the determination of a people to damn well endure.’

Millard Lampell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s