I can't get enough of the Woody Guthrie celebrations as his 100th birthday comes and goes. Here's a great commemoration piece by British musician-activist Billy Bragg, originally published in the Guardian and picked up at Common Dreams. Bragg writes from Tulsa, some 60 miles from Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woodie Guthrie was born. As he notes, the Woody Guthrie Archives are in the process of moving from New York City to Tulsa.
They're in the process of moving back to Oklahoma, where Guthrie's heritage has been controversial and often under-appreciated . . . . Bragg explains why:
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.
Bragg thinks there's now hope that Guthrie's fellow Oklahomans will begin to reassess his legacy and understand its importance to American history. And I, in turn, find hope in Bragg's hope.
As he suggests, there's hope embedded in the fact that a man singing about the struggles of poor farmers dispossessed of their land in the Dust Bowl era, about lynchings and the attempt of workers to obtain rights, should in turn influence a young singer, Bob Dylan, who grew up in a very different place and in a different time. So that the legacy of one prophetic poet-singer transmits itself to another, generation by generation, assuring unbroken continuity of prophetic song in a nation in which the owning classes have always sought to break the backs of the poor.
I mull these thoughts over against a very personal backdrop: it has always seemed a little miraculous to me--a development of pure gratuity, of grace--that Steve and I connected as young men, when he grew up on a farm in an intensely Catholic and conservative German-American household in the far north of Minnesota, and when I was reared in a typically out-of-control crazy Southern Gothic family in Arkansas, with deep roots in the culture and history of the American South. In the household of a lawyer who was conservative about some matters but liberal about others, and anything but Catholic-friendly, in keeping with his Southern roots.
A development of grace that two lifelong friends, the halves of each others' souls, should meet, when our family histories, cultural backgrounds, and geographical locations were so divergent . . . . And, in a way, Woodie Guthrie played a role in that meeting.
By the time Steve and I met, we had both involved ourselves in some of the protest activities of the day. Because of my Southern upbringing, I was more connected to the Civil Rights struggle than the struggle against the Vietnam War, and so I gravitated to the former rather than the latter, though I did participate in marches and other actions (a week-long fast, I remember, for instance) against the war.
Steve, by contrast, had little connection to the Civil Rights movement, and had not even seen an African-American until he went to a wedding in North Dakota in his senior year of high school and saw a black man. In the flesh. For the first time. Methodists are exotic (and non-existent) in the county seat close to Steve's family's farm, a town that is entirely Catholic and Lutheran, German and French and Scandinavian, with only the tiniest smidgeon of "English," all of whom are relegated to a a single minuscule Presbyterian church.
For Steve, it was the war that was galvanizing, and it was the war and his involvement in protesting it that led him to burn his draft card and set off on the hitchhiking journey that eventually connected us, as he passed through New Orleans intending to do work at a mission in southern Mexico. It was the war that was galvanizing, and it was Woodie Guthrie as mediated through Bob Dylan, whom Steve admired as a fellow Minnesota hippy-protestor.
And while Dylan was not so much on my radar screen (I swooned over Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez), I, too, loved Woodie Guthrie. And took inspiration from him.
And so I say that in a way, Woodie Guthrie helped connect us when we met in the early 1970s.
A chain of transmission from one starry-eyed young American dreamer to another, which has long gone on, I'm convinced, and which will continue to go on, though the names and faces of those singing Woodie Guthrie's prophetic, moving songs may change.
The video: Bob Dylan performing Woodie Guthrie's "Ramblin' Round" in Bonnie Beecher's apartment in Minnesota in 1961, uploaded to YouTube by MusicRevisited.