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drop of a hint, and he was possessed by a creative drive so feverish that he left what Dave Marsh estimates as 750,000 unpublished words, including hundreds of lyrics—mostly from the ’40s, when his second wife, Marjorie, was tracking his outpourings, with many more gone.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.
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.