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Bragg writes: "In the pantheon of American poets, Woody belongs midway between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan, but it is his roots in Oklahoma that give his work an authentic voice, ringing out from the dusty midwestern plains: a welcome antidote to the easy jibe that, if you're poor and white in this part of the world, you're bound to be a redneck."

Woody Guthrie. (photo: LA Weekly)
Woody Guthrie. (photo: LA Weekly)

Woody Guthrie at 100: The Return of a Pariah

By Billy Bragg, Guardian UK

13 July 12


he construction team that kept hammering away all night outside my hotel window in downtown Tulsa are gone by the morning, the fierce glare of the Oklahoma summer forcing them into the shade to rest. A few blocks away there are streets full of empty buildings, signs that the oil boom of the past decade is long past. Tulsa sure could do with some regeneration.

Woody Guthrie was born not far from here 100 years ago, and as people all over the world celebrate his life and work this weekend, Oklahoma has still to come to terms with the legacy of its wayward son. In this conservative midwest state, Woody's work is still viewed through the prism of the McCarthy era, when the state department accused folk singers of "un-American activities".

However, it's not what Woody did in the 1940s that still riles people in these parts. It's what his followers did in the 60s that made Woody a pariah in his home state. For Woody was the original singer-songwriter, the first to use his voice not just to entertain, but to ask why people should remain dirt poor in a country as rich as the US.

It was Woody's words that prompted the young Robert Zimmerman to leave his home in the Iron Range of Minnesota and head for New York. Changing his name to Bob Dylan and singing as if he came from the red dirt of Oklahoma, he inspired a generation of articulate young Americans to unleash a torrent of criticism against the complacency of their unequal society. The fact that Woody was a hero to that generation of long-haired freaks ensured that he and his songs would remain largely unsung in Oklahoma.

Yet perceptions change. In the 1990s Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie, began a labour of love, gathering up all her father's papers and creating the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York City. The man who emerged from the countless boxes of songs, prose and drawings was a much more complex figure than the Dust Bowl balladeer of legend.

Woody was afflicted by Huntington's disease, an incurable degenerative disorder of the nervous system that gradually incapacitates, leading inexorably to death. The years after the second world war are generally held to have marked Woody's decline into ill health, but the archive suggests otherwise. Perhaps aware that he was succumbing to the same illness that had killed his mother, Woody upped his already prodigious output, writing three or four songs a day in the house on Mermaid Avenue, in Brooklyn, where he lived with his wife, Marjorie, and three kids.

He wrote songs about riding in a flying saucer, about making love to film star Ingrid Bergman, about getting drunk and chasing women with his sailor buddies. Clearly the material in the archive – now estimated to stretch to more than 3,000 complete songs – would force us to reassess our idea of who Woody Guthrie was.

Fitting then, as we gather here to celebrate his centenary, that news should come that the Woody Guthrie Archive is relocating to a purpose-built facility in downtown Tulsa. Bringing Woody home is a gamble, but Nora Guthrie knows that Oklahoma needs to rediscover her father's work, now more than ever. Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang Woody's most famous song, This Land is Your Land, at Obama's inauguration – but Oklahoma is the only state in the union that failed to return a single district in favour of America's first African-American president.

In the pantheon of American poets, Woody belongs midway between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan, but it is his roots in Oklahoma that give his work an authentic voice, ringing out from the dusty midwestern plains: a welcome antidote to the easy jibe that, if you're poor and white in this part of the world, you're bound to be a redneck.

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+32 # Peacedragon 2012-07-13 17:23
This country is better because Woody lived here.
+1 # barbaratodish 2012-07-13 23:54
No land is my land, no land is your land
We hardly own our per*son*al*i*tee
No land is my land, no land is your land
owning anything's in*san*i*ty!
+5 # michelle 2012-07-14 09:37
second verse:
They're taking your land
They taking my land
From California to the NY Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters
They're takin' land from you and me

Given the neo-con agenda and corporate actions, the song is more timely than ever. Someone else start verse three.
+5 # dovelane1 2012-07-14 01:09
I believe every folk-singer/son gwriter in America, and possibly Canada and Great Britain owes something to Woody Guthrie if they trace their roots back far enough. I learned a lot I didn't know reading his biography.

Growing up on the Iron Range, I heard about the connection between Bob Dylan and Woody years after I had started playing guitar. There was a lot more I didn't know. I think I was about 7 when he died, and hadn't even touched a guitar at that time.
+11 # eldoryder 2012-07-14 04:51
I would love to see, just once, someone other than Pete Seeger sing the COMPLETE lyrics to Woodie's great American Anthem, "This Land is Your Land". In fact, I'd be thrilled for it to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem. Sure would change the tone at all of those sporting events!
+9 # Glen 2012-07-14 06:18
Not to be too picky here, but it wasn't just "long haired freaks" who listened to Woody Guthrie or those who followed his lead and sentiment. Students, nursing school students, young workers, clean cut high school kids, older folks who lived through tough times, all listened to Woody and people like Bob Dylan.

Regardless of personal history, folks today would benefit greatly from the words of every one of those poets.
+8 # Terrapin 2012-07-14 10:02
"This Land Is Your Land"
The ONLY National Anthem I will ever sing ...
+8 # rubysnan 2012-07-14 11:42
Woody's legacy will never diminish, thanks to Arlo and the rest of the Guthrie family and Pete Seeger, another American icon himself.
0 # KittatinyHawk 2012-07-15 10:32
I will not brandish Woody's Placement on the Pedestals of Life. He is neither between, nor behind, nor in front of.
Woody Guthrue did something No One Else Would stand up for himself and for others.
He shouted his feelings thru his songs. He made History. No one will ever be able to thank him enough for his kindness, his love of This Great Land but of People who were still treated like slaves.

Sorry I love Walt Whitman, I certainly appreciate Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie spoke out, led marches, Sang Out, took on DC and Farm Bureau and other Agencies. Those who heard him, rejoice. Those who have heard of him, read on. Keep his music and sentiment alive for all our sake's No Child should be born that does not know This Land is Your Land. Those who do not, seem to be those who care less. We who have fight the farthest and the hardest.

Thanks for remembering our Hero, A Legend.

Where is Dylan Now? Where are all the ones who want to be remembered for Freedom. Time they wake up and here the Siren....Time we start the Revolution. We need no stinking weapons, we need determination, numbers, we need to show our Unity. Leave the Guns with the Nazis. We Are Americans, We Want America Back. This Land is My Land...if it is Your Land...than start proving it
+1 # Judge Sturdy 2012-07-16 08:09
Please tell me exactly what's wrong with being a redneck.

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