x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 September 2017

Woody Guthrie’s new box-set dusts off the US singer-songwriter’s archives

The great American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie is often remembered as an anti-establishment figure, but a new box-set collects work recorded for the US government, writes Dan Hancox.

The livelihood-destroying storms in the so-called ‘Dust Bowl’ of 1930s America were a big influence on Woody Guthrie’s music, providing a theme that he returns to several times during his box-set American Radical Patriot. Universal History Archive / Getty Images
The livelihood-destroying storms in the so-called ‘Dust Bowl’ of 1930s America were a big influence on Woody Guthrie’s music, providing a theme that he returns to several times during his box-set American Radical Patriot. Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Woody Guthrie is one of 20th-century America’s most intriguing paradoxes. Guthrie, while named after an American president, is a man who wrote 174 “Woody Sez” opinion columns for the Daily People’s World, a communist newspaper; a man who sang righteous protest songs on picket lines and documented the Great Depression of the 1930s first-hand; and a man who is most famous for This Land Is Your Land, an answer to the complacency and bombast of God Bless America, that spoke of working-class people left hungry while a parasitic elite thrived. Given that Guthrie’s work was always anti-establishment in tone, it appears confusing at first that his most extensive body of work was for the US government.

This latest archival collection, American Radical Patriot, a huge compilation comprising six CDs, a DVD, a 60-page book and a 78rpm piece of vinyl, carries the unusual stamp of having been collated and produced not by EMI or RCA, but the US Library of Congress. It’s an attempt to document, as a piece of American popular-folk history, all of Guthrie’s work held by this government department, either for the war effort, on public health campaigns, or most of all, in telling the stories of the American people. It’s a colossal undertaking and endlessly fascinating – in scope and poignancy, on a par with Ken Burns’s documentaries about the US Civil War.

Four of the six CDs were recorded in one go, over five hours – and appear here in full for the first time. In 1940, Woody Guthrie sat down with the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax and recorded his music for the first time – he had already acquired a great reputation, but was yet to record any music commercially. He was still only 27 and yet already had seen and experienced so much of America, and its people, during two of the most turbulent decades in the country’s history. The songs, accompanied by acoustic guitar and sometimes harmonica, are interspersed with Lomax’s interviews, which produced a captivating sequence of stories about Guthrie’s extraordinary life; a cornucopia of colourful, emotive tales of interwar America, in story and in song.

Guthrie’s interview answers are as remarkable and of their time as his songs. Hearing his voice ring out so old-timey but so clear is a bit of a shock to the system, an experience of historical displacement similar to seeing a classic pre-war black-and-white photo colourised for the first time. Our ears expect, perhaps demand, the crackle, the misty fade of history – instead, this genuine vox populi speaks to us as if from the same room, not another century.

“Wheeeeeeeell,” Guthrie says in his sing-songy Oklahoma accent at the start of every answer, gently strumming his guitar, before embarking on a reminiscence full of humility and humour. He recalls his upbringing and his father (“known as one of those hard-hittin’, fist-fightin’ Democrats”), his family’s sudden ruin, his travels, “hoboing, freight training”, square dances, waltzes, boll weevils, making home brew, sharing his then-controversial attitude of warmth and friendship for “Negros”, telling fond tales of “fellers” and oil discoveries, poverty and desperation. It’s a joy.

In its detail and its humanity, the collection launches us back three-quarters of a century, painting detailed pictures of common lives too often forgotten. While most academics agree he was more of a communist “fellow traveller” than a Marxist-Leninist and paid-up party member, Guthrie’s politics are in little doubt. Introducing a song about an “outlaw” called Jesus Christ, he tells Lomax about an evangelist who was “ ... talkin’ about takin’ it from the rich and givin’ it to the poor ... I’m not a very smart feller, but I know that sounds awful good to everybody where I come from.” The song itself describes a (small c) communist messiah nailed to the cross by “bankers, preachers ... soldiers and cops”. The next number, The Jolly Banker, is a withering indictment of a class who will “come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes ... rake you and scalp you”, played across a chirpy melody that is as sarcastic as Guthrie’s lyrics. The point that is too often ignored in some of the diluted, cosier depictions of Guthrie as a people’s poet, is that to be a true defender of the downtrodden, you also have to be on the offensive against those doing the treading – and he was.

In one of his newspaper columns, Guthrie wrote (in his colloquial Oklahoma vernacular) of seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath: “Shows you the dam [sic] bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it. It says you got to get together and have some meetins [sic], and stick together, and raise old billy hell till you get youre job, and get your farm back, and your house and your chickens and your groceries and your clothes, and your money back.”

Steinbeck’s great novel tells a similar story to Guthrie’s music – of the depredations of the 1930s and the ruination of an entire people in what was known as the Dust Bowl: the series of catastrophic dust storms that blew away the over-farmed southern topsoil and devastated the agriculture of states such as Oklahoma and Texas, driving 2.5 million Americans from their homes. Songs like Dust Pneumonia Blues, seven minutes of dust-filled lungs and dust-covered graves, “Dust in the house, dust in the dishes and clothes/ Dust in your ears, dust in your eyes and nose” are almost queasily vivid and depressing.

The middle of the 1930s Dust Bowl as Guthrie knew it was not Steinbeck’s Oklahoma, nor the New Mexico end to the west, but “where the wheat grows, the oil flows and the farmer owes”: the west Texas plains. The dust storms he saw there were black clouds that looked to be two miles high, we learn – “you never seen anything like this before” – nor would you see your hand in front of your face. The result was poverty, desperation and consequently migration of epic, tragic proportions. There was no choice but to hit the long American road in the vain hope of something better. “This dusty old dust is blowing me home, I’ve got to be drifting along,” he laments on the heartbreaking elegy So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh. It’s in tragic ballads such as this that Guthrie’s importance becomes clear: beyond glib words about being a people’s poet or Bob Dylan’s inspiration, here is a man who channelled the voices of millions unheard by their masters.

There were times when Guthrie felt it expedient to work for those masters. The remainder of this collection is music made directly for government departments, and it’s fascinating – not least in documenting the swing that Guthrie made, along with the American Communist Party, from opposing US intervention in the Second World War to backing it, and offering to record a series of songs and short radio dramas for the government’s Office of War Information in support of the war effort. Songs called things like Whoopy Ti-Yi, Get Along, Mr Hitler make clear his approach to the propaganda song from the title down. And on Dig a Hole he promises to “lay you fascists down” – on the radio dramas, he encourages people to do everything they can for the war effort. This was a case of government policy falling into line with Guthrie’s beliefs, rather than Guthrie warming to America’s leaders – this is a man long renowned for performing with the words “This machine kills fascists” scrawled on his guitar.

The more curious government-sponsored material here ranges from songs for a public health campaign against venereal disease to a selection of the 26 songs he recorded in a month for the federally owned Bonneville Power Administration, promoting cheap, publicly owned electricity. Some of this material was commissioned songwriting work to pay the rent, but the source of the money dimmed neither the wisdom of his storytelling nor the passion of his delivery. “Every state in this Union us migrants have been/ We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win” he sings on Pastures of Plenty, recorded during the Bonneville sessions. Even when Guthrie was playing for America’s government, he was singing for its people.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His latest book is The Village Against the World (Verso).