“I hate songs that make you think you were born to lose—songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.”
LIKE WOODY GUTHRIE IN HIS PRIME, ReadTheSpirit aims to inspire—to give you the fuel you need to boost your spirits and make fresh connections in our world. So, at major milestones (like the ascension of Walter Cronkite to CBS’s network chair 50 years ago), we gather tips on the very best media we can find. When Mike Wallace died in April, we reported on an aspect of his career largely missing in other news media—his tough take on religion. Right now, Woody Guthrie’s famous songs are ringing out for the centennial of his birth on July 14, 1912. On his birthday approached, Google-News reported that there were more than 22,000 newsy centennial items, photos and stories floating around the Internet. That’s just a small portion of the 42 million Web pages mentioning Woody. So here is …
The Best of
Our favorite piece on Woody?
It’s the poem about Woody written by singer-songwriter (and lifelong Guthrie fan) John Mellencamp. A few of Mellencamp’s lines:
This bird don’t mind volunteering
Is not afraid to lose
Is too moral to be a whore
And too honest to steal
But cares enough to write it all down in song
And, leave it to the Brits! As usual, some of the best journalism about the Woody centennial comes from British newspapers. Perhaps their perspective is clearer, when peering at Woody’s life and legacy from across the Atlantic. The London-based Telegraph has published a number of stories, including this one that provides both biographical background and smart analysis. The Telegraph writes, in part: This Land is Your Land is now considered by many to be America’s alternative national anthem. Woody Guthrie has been mythologized as a dust bowl troubadour, a spiky-haired, boxcar-riding, hitchhiking king of the open road, clutching a guitar emblazoned with “This Machine Kills Fascists”. But Guthrie the man was more contradictory, calculating and complex than Woody the myth. “Woody was not an icon, he was an iconoclast,” argues Billy Bragg. “I see him as the halfway point between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.” (NOTE: That Telegraph story also includes links to even more about Guthrie, Springsteen, Dylan and Lomax.)
Confused about Woody allegedly being a “Communist”? Let’s put those poisonous old accusations to rest, shall we? Of all the commentaries sorting out this issue, we especially like the column by veteran religion newswriter Jeffrey Weiss, who writes in part: While Woody was sympathetic to many avowed communist goals, he was too loose a cannon for any canon. Yup: the Communists wouldn’t let Woody be an official Communist, even if he’d really wanted to join. Turns out the Communist bosses were right: Woody would have made a terrible commie.
Some commentators look deeper. That includes Tom Watson, a scholar and journalist who occasionally writes for Forbes, certainly not a left-leaning publication by any means! Tom’s column was among the most thoughtful in the past week, including these lines: Guthrie wrote songs for and about outsiders. And though the U.S. remains an aspirational society in terms of both wealth and social standing, most people are still outsiders. Since the Great Recession of 2008 and its echoes of the 1930s, social movements both online and off have become more earnest in using the language of the outsiders—words Woody Guthrie worked into his songs of the 30s and 40s. When Tom Morello led a virtual army of guitarists through the streets of Manhattan earlier this year in one of the last big public moments of the Occupy Wall Street movement (to date) it was a given that one of the tunes the musical collective played was Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, the classic alternative national anthem.
Is the world really celebrating? Sure thing! That’s the conclusion of Reuters in a column that was posted on the MSNBC website along with a new photo of Woody’s famous son Arlo. The Reuters story includes these words: This year, from California and New York to Germany and Italy, the man dubbed the “Dust Bowl troubadour” is being analyzed and fondly remembered at Guthrie centennial gatherings great and small. Not bad for a singer and songwriter who was a commercial flop, despite writing the iconic American song “This Land is Your Land.”
Musician Charlie Maguire offers an eloquent tribute to Woody Guthrie’s passion and his talent as a songwriter in the Minneapolis Star Tribune website. Maguire writes in part: Along with his no-nonsense, piston-engine melodies, it’s Woody’s words we love. They are the plainly sung simple words written by a man who knew what he wanted to say, and just said it. Woody used words carefully chosen for clarity and dignity, like he knew that his work would be heard and read by generations unknown to him, in languages he could not fathom, and on devices he could not imagine.
Are you looking for a photo of Woody that you can use in your own media? You’re planning a blog post, a home-made greeting card, a slide show for a group you lead? Wikimedia Commons shares two high-res versions of Woody playing his “This Machine Kills Fascists” guitar in his prime. Those photos are free to use and reproduce. And, of course, don’t miss Wikipedia’s jam-packed bio page on Woody. That page includes even more photos related to Woody, plus a complete Discography and loads more.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.