Woody Guthrie at 100: the return of a pariah
By Billy Bragg, Thursday 12 July 2012 16.30 EDT
The 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.
Photograph of Woody Guthrie’s birthplace in Okemah, a small town in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, by Walter Smalling, October 1979. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Guthrie_house.jpg