Friday, March 8, 2013

Being Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie gets a shoe shine, 1943 (Photo: Eric Schaal/Time & Life Pictures)

When I was a boy, I got a guitar. My Mom took me to Viola Music Centre and paid for lessons. They sold her a cheap acoustic sunburst that looked nice but had neck problems. No kid should ever have to learn on a guitar that would be better used in an archery competition. I think it was called a Capri. It may even still be in the basement of my Mom’s house, but it’s not good for much. I learned very little from the lessons. I wanted to play folk music, and they taught me “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along”. I wanted to sing Peter, Paul & Mary songs, and they taught me how to pick one-string melodies from a book that I don’t ever want to think about. I wanted to be Woody Guthrie, but I didn’t know it yet.

After hearing Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” we tracked down the original. I well recall stopping at a music store in some small Bruce County town and when we walked in, the song playing was “To Ramona” and Dylan’s voice disturbed my Grandfather: “Ramona / Come closer / Shut softly your watery eyes…” When he got back to the car he teased and mocked that voice. Little did he know that the LP he’d helped me pick out was by the same singer. He’d hear a lot of that voice for the next few years. I didn’t want to be Bob Dylan, but it turned out he just wanted to be Woody Guthrie too. 

I tried learning about this Dylan character, there weren’t that many music magazines in the mid-60s. Hit Parader was about it. Printed on newsprint, it contained lyrics to the hit songs of the month. No chords, just lyrics and maybe an article describing what Bob Dylan’s favourite dessert was, or where he bought his cap. It may have had a few grainy photos of Donovan too, perhaps a mention of these troubadours’ influences. Could be the first place I heard about Woody Guthrie. Woody by this time was confined to a hospital bed in New York. News about him was spreading though. Dylan saw to that. On Dylan’s first album he only had a couple original tunes, and “Song to Woody” was one of them.

I heard the names of other folksingers like Ric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and searched their records out. One night at Simpson-Sears I struck gold, and discovered a stash of deleted blues records. Only 39 cents each for LPs. I bought a bunch of them. Spent my whole allowance, $2, and went home with five records! Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and in the bunch Cisco Houston Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie. It didn’t speak to me the way I had hoped. Cisco’s delivery was strange and formal, and not what I was expecting at all. However, it had a gaggle of Woody’s songs for me to learn. It didn’t have “This Land Is My Land” though.

Sure enough I got turned on to The Beatles and The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, and all the rest but I still played the folk music. When I got a little better on the guitar my Mom ordered me a new one from Eaton’s. You could buy anything at Eaton’s. It was a nylon-string model, the neck was straight all right, but wide as the Mississippi River. The nylon strings were easier to hold down and I progressed enough to begin playing in a duo with a friend. We were called Dave & Mil mainly because the artsier names we picked out nobody could understand. We sang at coffeehouses and school concerts. We travelled to folk festivals in Kawartha and played an open stage at Mariposa.

Sunday at the Mariposa Folk Festival, Toronto Island, 1970
If you look through the York University photo collection of Mariposa Folk Festivals you’ll see an “unidentified guitar player” in one shot. That’s Alan McKinlay with the 12-string, and we had travelled to Toronto Island together, so I’m likely standing right beside him, just outside the shot. Of course I can’t swear to it. That day we followed Ramblin’ Jack around attending his workshop on the folk tradition, and the one he did on the songs of Woody Guthrie too. David Rea was also there picking some fine filigrees all around the tunes. It was a glorious day.

I tried my hand at writing songs and have kept at it through the years, but mainly I sing old songs written by the would-be Dylans, and the would-be Woodys. There’s nothing wrong with that, maybe it makes me a Wood-be Guthrie. Even Woody’s son Arlo wants to be Woody. Arlo continues to sings his Dad’s songs. Last year, during the celebration of Woody’s Centennial Year, Arlo toured specifically to sing the elder Guthrie’s songs. And a fine job he made of it too. Billy Bragg and Wilco re-issued their two collections of unrecorded Woody songs (The Mermaid Avenue CDs) with the addition of a third CD. Arlo’s sister Nora, who serves as curator of the Woody Archives, also gave some unreleased lyrics to a variety of songwriters, leading to Note of Hope (Rob Wasserman with Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Kurt Elling, Ani Difranco, Studs Terkel, Nellie McKay, Chris Whitley, Pete Seeger, Tony Trischka, and Jackson Browne), New Multitudes (Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, Yim Yames), and a few others who added new melodies to Woody’s storehouse of lyrics.  Shepard Fairey contributed a poster! And Smithsonian Folkways issued a beautiful deluxe set of Woody’s own recordings in a hardcover book.

Guthrie Centennial poster by Shepard Fairey
It’s all so…extravagant. And that’s a concept I’m not sure Woody went for. He was a simple guy. You can hear it in his songs, he just tells the truth over three chords. You can see it in his drawings, immediate and clear. You can read it in his new novel. Well if a hundred-year-old man who passed away 46 years ago can have a new novel. This one’s called House of Earth and was edited (with an introduction) by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp? Yep! It’s the kind of novel I’d like to write. Simple, straightforward, with lots of sex and a real understanding of relationships. Woody captures what it must’ve been like to live through the Dust Bowl years for a couple of sharecroppers who just downright loved each other. Tike and Ella May Hamlin are plain nuts about each other. It doesn’t matter to Ella that her rich landowner Daddy disowned her when she married Tike (she just wishes Tike wouldn’t bring her father up all the time). Their love-making one afternoon takes up ten pages or so in the first chapter. It is filled with moments of true intimacy and tenderness.

The novel begins with the arrival of an instruction book from the US government on building yourself an adobe house. It’s Tike’s dream. He keeps that booklet with him throughout the book. It’s in the pocket of his overalls that he takes off to make love with his wife. It’s thumbed and dirty as he holds it while waiting for their baby to come. It represents the future, which can only be an improvement over Tike’s present.

I haven’t read such a true account of a husband and wife relationship in many years. These two people put up with each other’s fault and quirks, although they know exactly what they’re doing. When Tike teases Blanche (the young midwife who’s come to stay to help with the birth) he goes too far. Ella May hates it and she is happy that Blanche was able to get the final withering word, but she still feels sorry that her man lost face. It’s a darn good book, is all I’m trying to say. I’m not sure how much work Brinkley and Depp had to put into editing it, because it sure sounds like ‘ole Woody hisownseff’. And that’s why I want to be Woody. Geez, even Johnny Depp wants to be Woody!

This land should be my land, it was made for Woody and me, and you too. That’s what I want. I want to be able to say what I believe freely and clearly. I want my machine to kill fascists. I want to use three chords in as many ways as possible, and then to start over and do it all again, and nobody cares ‘cause they’re listening to the words. I want to live for a hundred years, but every single day of them. I sure don’t want Huntington’s or anybody else’s chorea, not for me, nor for anybody else. I want Billy Bragg to sing one of my songs…even if he has to write his own music. I’m not looking for extravagance. I wouldn’t mind a shot at Ingrid Bergman just like Woody. Of course we’re still talking about Ingrid from Casablanca, you realize. I want my scribbles to tell stories. I want to inspire people. I want to take my guitar and bum across the country, riding the freight trains. I want to hang around with Will Geer. I want to be Woody Guthrie.
I’m workin’ on it.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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