Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

Keeping the hoping machine running

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

On an afternoon in February 1940 a songwriter, tired of what he saw as the blind patriotism of the then radio staple “God Bless America“, sat down in his New York City hotel room and typed out a series of verses that he’d worked on over the preceding months.

The writer was Woody Guthrie and the result was his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” (which he’d originally, and sarcastically, titled “God Blessed America For Me”).

In the 80 or so years since, the song and its lyrics have become some of the best known and most sung lines in the American songbook.

But “This Land” was a slow starter. Having written the song Guthrie sat on it for four years, during which time he performed around New York city, including on the subway (above), and served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. When he returned to the song to record it, in 1944, he dropped two hard-hitting verses, one concerning private property and the other hunger.

(The latter was the most biting verse in the song, containing the lines “one bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the Relief Office I saw my people, as they stood hungry, I stood there wondering, if this land was made for you and me?”)

This was unsurprising perhaps. After four years of war Guthrie no doubt felt the need to cast his song, written in anger, in a more unifying light. And so the version he recorded for Moses Asch in March 1944  is one laced with hope.

On the day that’s in it, hours before a new and divisive president is inaugurated in Washington, D.C., its lyrics are worth reading. Because if you can’t keep the hoping machine running, what can you do?

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

 

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A 70-year-old note to a new President

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.

That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.

This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.

Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.

Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.

In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.

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Ringing the changes – the music of moving

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

“If you fear change, give it to me.”

There’s a guy who panhandles on the corner of North Broadway and North Vancouver Avenue in northeast Portland. His message, written on a piece of cardboard, seems to work. Well, it did for me last week.

Change is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months. Despite the common advice to remake and remodel, to constantly develop and progress, it’s not something that comes naturally to most people. I include myself.

A friend recently pointed out, however, that leaving a place or a job (and, in the process, a state of mind) is the only way to grow. A couple of months ago my wife and I did both, relocated to relocating to Portland, Oregon from Dublin, Ireland.

The journey’s been like nothing before. We are learning a new city, a new (to me) culture, job and apartment hunting. Some days it’s a natural fit, others demand a doubling down on resolve. But the change has come.

What downtime I have, between the hunting and unpacking and lifting and meetings, has been spent listening to music – on the MAX to the market, in line at the DMV, driving to a house viewing.

And so I’ve put together a short playlist with two intersecting themes – change and American popular music.

All the songs contain some trace or theme of change, from the social (Buffalo Springfield) to spiritual (Nina Simone) to the local (Cisco Houston’s version of a song Woody Guthrie wrote when he lived here in 1941).

Elsewhere there’s personal development (a track from Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions), a scorched-earth new start (courtesy of a Louis Armstrong solo) and a simple call for contentment from Elliott Smith.

And what better way to end it all than the famous largo from Dvořák’s ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, the composer’s musical testament to America – a composition of progress, hope and, above all, change.

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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

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Back to the old, weird America

The Basement Tapes

The Basement Tapes.

NEWS this week that Bob Dylan is to release a drawer-emptying 138 track compilation of music from his Basement Tapes sessions brings me back.

Specifically to a damp room of a shared house on Dublin’s north side, sometime back in the mid-90s, and my first encounter with some of this material.

At the time I was a university student and, having plenty of time on my hands, spent a great deal of it strumming my battered Hohner acoustic guitar.

Most of the songs I played were either written by Dylan or connected to him in some tangential way: Hank Williams, The Band, Woody Guthrie, The Grateful Dead.

I’d picked my way through most of Dylan’s 1960s’ albums when, idling one afternoon in the since-departed Freebird Records on Eden Quay, I spotted the two-cassette The Basement Tapes.

A couple of hours later I was back in my room in Fairview, about to press play on a recording I’d read of in dispatches but knew little about.

What came from the speakers, from the first track (the aptly-named Odds and Ends), was nothing like the firebrand protest singer or the drug mystic of Times They Are A-Changin’ or Blonde on Blonde.

This was a different beast to those recordings, a sprawling circus in a swamp, populated with history-book figures, hustlers, blues singers, welcoming women and doomed men.

'A passport back.' Highway 61, 1955. Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

‘A passport back.’
Highway 61, 1955.
Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

Some songs covered a 200-year sweep of America history, some the hassle of placing a long-distance phone call. It was wider and deeper than any single set of songs I’d heard before.

Woody Guthrie had travelled and written America but songs like Clothes Line Saga – while quotidian on the surface – cut much deeper into the fabric of the country.

Slave songs sat beside surreal travelogues, hymns to personal freedom were followed by the Edward Lear-esque nonsense verse.

The critic Greil Marcus has pointed out that the Basement Tapes represent less an album or a genre than a country and it’s history – “the old, weird America”, another country whose story was distilled by six men in a home studio in 1967.

I’ve been playing, thinking over and reading about that country and these songs since I pressed play in that room almost 20 years ago.

Over the years I’ve heard other outtakes from the sessions – in addition to the 22 songs, 16 by Dylan and eight of The Band’s, on the official release – but I’ve never heard the bulk of the recordings.

Describing a different set of recordings, The Band’s second album, Greil Marcus suggested that “it felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners, even when they were in it.”

Is it naïve to expect that The Basement Tapes Complete could provide something similar for those who listen now, in a another time and a different country?

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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.
Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

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