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Being Woody Guthrie

By       Message David Glenn Cox     Permalink
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Woody Guthrie by Public Domain


Today we have so many celebrities who take on social causes; it is almost a given that they will each have some charity or cause that they support. That is good, I suppose, but still there is a clear distinction between being socially conscious and being Woody Guthrie.

Woody has been dead for almost half a century, and his deeds and exploits have fallen from public memory. Woody wasn't socially conscious, he was its conscience. In the dark days of depression-era homelessness and migrant camps, Woody sang, "So long, it's been good to know ya, this dusty old dust is getting my home." He sang, "It's a hot dusty road that a million feet have trod. Rich man took my house and he drove me from my door. And I ain't got no home in this world anymore."

He left his wife and family, like millions of other men during the depression, seeking work. When he was given his own radio show in Los Angeles, he sent for his wife and children. Guthrie played the same songs that he had played in the migrant camps, and dedicated songs to those who didn't have enough to eat that night. Sponsors wanted only hillbilly music, but what they got was pure Woody. Management demanded Guthrie supply them in advance with a list of the songs he intended to sing, and then he didn't play any of them.

Coming to California on foot, Woody knew that being called an Okie wasn't a term of endearment; he was an outsider and always would be an outsider. He wasn't just a little man who wrote songs for the oppressed. He was the oppressed, and he wrote songs for the little people who were oppressed everywhere. He walked out on good jobs because he wouldn't be muzzled or censored. If you wanted Woody you got Woody, all of him, not just the polite parts.

In the days of strict segregation, Woody played with Lead Belly, Sonny Terry , Brownie McGhee and Josh White. Those things just weren't done by white performers in polite society, but Woody didn't give a damn about polite society. Once while working on a troop ship, Woody was playing for the troops when he heard voices from the front hold, and he asked, "Why aren't we playing down
there?"

"Well, those are colored troops, and there might be trouble," it was explained.

Woody asked, "Why? Don't they like music?"
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Woody played and there was no trouble, but at a war bond rally and banquet in Baltimore they weren't so lucky. Woody, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry had played for the crowd. Woody was seated for supper at the head table while Sonny and Brownie were offered a plate in the kitchen. Enraged, Woody flipped the table over saying, "If we're going to fight fascism, let's start right here!" That was Woody, and that was Woody's last war bond rally.

In 1938 Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America," and Kate Smith had a hit record with it. But to Woody, the song had it all wrong. It was plastic and superficial, a blind patriotic ballad without any soul searching or reckoning of the things that needed correction in this country. So Woody sat down to write a song about what being an American meant to him.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND

Chorus: This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me
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Chorus

I've roamed and rambled and I've 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

Chorus

The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that I (more...)
 

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