Woody Guthrie's Second Life

Folksinger, Wordslinger, Start Me a Song

In part because Guthrie carried that guitar, he was never circumscribed by Rogers's model, and he obviously outgrew it. Rogers was no conservative, but his folksy humanism was pretty soft—Guthrie met plenty of men he didn't like, most of them moneyed. Soon the trouble he saw—and suffered—on his escapes from the Dust Bowl had planted in him a radicalism brought to fruition by the analysis and community of the Communist Party's Popular Front. And that wasn't all the CP provided. It also gave Guthrie an outlet and an audience for language the way he wanted to use it, language that honored the actually existing plainspeak of the folks whose voices he knew so much better than such perceived rivals as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, touched unpredictably with a fanciful wordplay so extreme at times that it seems to prefigure the dementia of the disease that soon destroyed his mind and body. But—like Whitman and Sandburg, like Joe Hill and Robert Frost too, but also like all the matinee idols and pop stars he considered enemies of the people—Guthrie chose to project those words through a cunningly fabricated public persona.

No one understood this more profoundly than Bob Dylan, which is why that shape-shifting fame-gamer was as moved by Bound for Glory as by any of Guthrie's recordings. It's probably fair to say that without Dylan, Guthrie would have had no impact on rock and roll, and that as it stands he's had plenty. Although some of his ideas would have lived on because they weren't exclusive to him—the recycled folk melody above all, and also the vocal deadpan, what Wilfred Mellers called his "monody of deprivation," which has lots of relatives in folk and country—it was Dylan who proved once and for all how musical logocentrism could be. Guthrie was a page writer of distinction—Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait, which Marsh and Harold Leventhal constructed from the file drawers circa 1990, has even more of the unvarnished magic he cultivated than Bound for Glory. But it was in song—in rhymed doggerel shot through with the ordinary, often literally tuneless yet touched by the natural rhythms and casual eloquence that will rise to the surface of people's speech for as long as they talk to each other—that he found his artistic inspiration and his artistic calling. And it was Dylan who took that calling to the next level, convincing rock and roll that popular song's immemorial tradition of ambitious dreamers scribbling verses could go anywhere it wanted. It was Dylan who opened the floodgates to species of poetry good and bad that had more precedents in Guthrie's wilder flights than in the well-honed bons mots of Broadway's highest brows.

So please don't suspect me of disrespect aforethought when I get better message from Bruce Springsteen's revved-up "Riding in My Car" and Ramblin' Jack Elliott's wobbly "1913 Massacre" on the new Righteous Babe tribute 'Til We Outnumber 'Em than from Guthrie's originals, or when I point out that James Talley's calm, faithful Woody Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home has a warm clarity Guthrie lacks. And please don't think I'm being mean when I declare the two Mermaid Avenues the finest Guthrie albums there are. The new one's rougher and more garage, with none of the debut's instant grace, but it's far more than the outtakes you may first hear. The rancor Jeff Tweedy works up on "Feed of Man" packs a sharper political jolt than anything on the first volume, or anything I can recall from the Smithsonian box either; the long love ballad "Remember the Mountain Bed" is simply gorgeous; for grace there's Corey Harris and Natalie Merchant; and on it goes. Really, folks—the gawky Bragg and the aimless Wilco, outdoing themselves yet again. Is it Guthrie's myth that turns them into something like great artists? Or is it simply his words, within which is concealed the secret of a music he himself rarely unlocked? Volume three should be all union songs. We could use a bunch of good ones.

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