Late Night: Woody Guthrie Centennial

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger at one of his last concerts, Lennox, MA, July 1950

Above is one of a group of photos featured by NPR yesterday on what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, had he lived.

After the dust of the Dust Bowl settled down, American folksinger Woody Guthrie moved to New York City and played more for the leftist East Coast intelligentsia than for migrant workers. Among these performances, one of the better documented was an informal concert in a remarkable carriage house in Lenox, Mass.

Neighbors to Tanglewood and the other arts institutions in the Berkshires, Philip and Stephanie Barber ran the Music Inn as a retreat for New York City intellectuals. Over the course of 30 years, they would hold informal folk and jazz concerts, roundtable discussions and other salon-style cultural events in the carriage house of the former summer estate of the Countess de Heredia.

The first concert was in July 1950. Alan Lomax, a friend of the Barbers, hosted a concert featuring Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Rev. Gary Davis. Among those in attendance was Dan Burley, a piano player and journalist for the Amsterdam News and other African-American newspapers.

CNN posted more gorgeous photos of Woody Guthrie in New York in 1943.

Guthrie’s mother had Huntington’s Disease, which is transmitted through a dominant gene. Woody was diagnosed with the disease in 1952, but had probably shown symptoms earlier than that. Huntington’s usually strikes in middle age, when it may have already been passed on to the next generation. I found this site, which tracks Woody’s knowledge of his family history of the disease and his gradual development of symptoms. Woody died on October 3, 1967.

NPR ran a couple of good programs about Woody Guthrie last week–a lengthy one on Fresh Air and a shorter report that highlights the Woody Guthrie archive on All Things Considered.

Woody’s father Charles Guthrie was a businessman and politician and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He apparently participated in the lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson in 1911. On Friday the LA Weekly published a article by Jonny Whiteside that calls Woody Guthrie “a big ol’ racist.” Whiteside also suggests that Guthrie was a fraud in that he lied about the source of his music.

You can read the article to assess these claims. I found the story interesting. I think that every great artist has negative aspects to his or her character, and that can be added to the overall picture. But I think it’s possible to evaluate the work itself separate from the character of the artist. Every human being is a complex mixture of light and shadow, as Jung would say.

I never fail to get chills when I hear “This Land is Your Land,” the radical anthem that Guthrie wrote in response to the song “God Bless America.”

This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood 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’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And 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,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

© Copyright 1956 (renewed), 1958 (renewed), 1970 and 1972 by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)


Here are a few more Woody Guthrie songs:

All You Fascists Bound to Lose

Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad

So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You

This one was performed by a number of artists at the Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration: This Train is Bound for Glory.

What’s your favorite Woody Guthrie tune?