Woody Guthrie's Second Life

Folksinger, Wordslinger, Start Me a Song

It's a credit to the mythmakers of the Woody Guthrie revival that they've never claimed their hero was the proletarian everyman he sold himself as. Not that they had much choice—by the time Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Joe Klein's thorough and brilliant Woody Guthrie: A Life had fondly but firmly debunked the thank-God-I'm-a-country-boy aw-shucksism the folksinger had put forth as an image-conscious man of the people. The son of a small-time Oklahoma real estate man whose luck ran out long before the Depression, Guthrie fit a downwardly mobile mold that turns out misfits like child abuse. He had the gift of optimism, but he knew more spiritual darkness than he let on, and he never resolved his internal conflict between principled collectivism and ragged individualism. He drank too much, he was always chasing skirt, he hit the road at the drop of a hint, and he was possessed by a creative drive so feverish that he left what Dave Marsh estimates as 750,000 unpublished words, including hundreds of lyrics—mostly from the '40s, when his second wife, Marjorie, was tracking his outpourings, with many more gone. But for all their eagerness to promulgate Guthrie's political vision, the likes of Marsh and Billy Bragg—the driving force behind the most miraculous of the Guthrie revivals, Mermaid Avenue, now into an improbably spirited second volume of new music fitted to old words—are decent and aware enough to understand that there's no future for a politics that ignores unseemly complexities.

Still, canonization invites exaggeration. So it's significant that the biggest overstatements in the uncommonly consistent Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, a book based on a 1996 symposium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, involve music—the Hall of Fame guy stuck with specifying Woody's impact on rock and roll (John Lennon? Bob Marley? please), the Smithsonian guy who can't resist ranking him with Armstrong, Dylan, and Presley (what about James Brown and Dr. Dre?). It's even more significant that although the 13 contributors chip in two excellent essays on his leftism and a sharply sympathetic survey of his 600 surviving drawings, none devotes more than a few passing references to Woody's music per se—not even ace compiler Jeff Place, who details Guthrie's recording history while barely mentioning his singing or playing. Nor does his life story feature that signal moment when the hero obtains his first guitar and isn't seen again for three months, so obsessed is he with learning chords. For Guthrie, music was one interest among many. He was deeper into art, supporting himself as a sign painter. And when he performed around town with his Corncob Trio he was a comedian first. The adolescent author of a lost psychology treatise who somehow managed to turn out daily columns for the Communist press while pursuing his musical career in L.A. and New York, Woody Guthrie loved language above all else.

"I ain't a writer. I want that understood. I'm just a little one-cylinder guitar picker," Woody once wrote, but note that this was a man who signed his letters "True as the average" and was about to churn out the less-true-than-average autobiography Bound for Glory. For sure he warn't much of a musician. His singing was famously unassertive, he never claimed to pick on two cylinders, his recordings benefited inordinately when his negligible sidekick Cisco Houston pitched in, and although Guthrie liked to argue that the simple old tunes were best because they were the ones folks wanted to hear, he showed small ability to concoct a simple new tune out of them, as has always been folk and pop practice. This is why there's no equating him with Dylan, who's taken his ideas so much further—it's like equating Louis Armstrong with King Oliver because Armstrong comes out of Oliver. By all means invest in Smithsonian Folkways' The Asch Recordings, which collects all four of Place's meticulous reissues in one box. The first volume's much the most listenable, but throughout it's a fascinating and well-conceived overview of an American artist who surpasses, say, his mutual appreciator John Steinbeck. Just don't imagine it's this year's Anthology of American Folk Music.

Sure Guthrie was influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson and all the songs his crazy doomed mama knew. And when he hit the road, damn right he took his guitar. But I say we see him clearer when we look beyond music for an immediate forebear: fellow Okie Will Rogers. This deeply affable part-Cherokee, who like Guthrie was a newspaper columnist as well as a performer, became a superstar saying things like "I never met a man I didn't like," "This country is here on account of the real common sense of the Big Normal Majority," and "Don't gamble. Take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don't go up, don't buy it." Guthrie loved him, as he loved Charlie Chaplin, whose impishness he also absorbed; the goofy hayseed he played on the L.A. radio shows where he first made his name was based on Rogers's shtick. And though many other '30s entertainers—including Bing Crosby, chief among the "sissy-voiced" jukebox lotharios Guthrie railed against—also drew on Rogers, none of them told friends that the men they most admired were Jesus and Will Rogers, much less named their firstborn sons Will Rogers Guthrie.

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