When I first read these lines by Woodrow Wilson Guthrie I knew my rulebook had been changed:
“I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you’re just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you’re either too old or too young, or too fat or too thin, or too ugly or too this or too that.
“Songs that run you down. Songs that poke fun at you, on account of yer bad luck or yer hard travellin’. I am out to fight those kinds of songs till my very last breathe of air and my last drop of blood. I’m out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and it has kicked you pretty hard and knocked you down for a dozen loops.
“No matter how hard it’s run you down and rolled over you. No matter what colour or what size you are or how you’re built. I am out to sing the songs that will make you take pride in yourself.”
All good songs have roots, and this root was planted by Woody Guthrie. Just as the Wobblies and Joe Hill cried that there is no “pie in the sky,” Woody Guthrie was appalled at the idea that “God Bless America” should be sung by children. To worship without thinking was the greatest sin in Woody’s church.
Guthrie would take melodies that were common – in the folk tradition of learn and do – and put his definitive twist on them. You know the songs even if you don’t know them.
As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on that sign it said “No Trespassing,”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
What a cry for freedom in the land of the free?
His whole theory on copyright laws might not make sense to Lars Ulrich, a founding member and drummer for Metallica, who read testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 11, 2000 accusing Napster of copyright infringement. Guthrie copy wrote his songs with the attached message, “… anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a darn. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
Songs such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh” and “I Ain’t Got No Home” got Woody into some hot water during the the rise of McCarthyism and the Red Scare since Guthrie was seen as a socialist along with Pete Seeger and other left leaning folk musicians.
One to always to speak things the way he saw them, Woody’s lyrics often reflected the struggles of working families and their resilience against the harshest of living conditions.
Woody didn’t just preach it, he lived it.
Take his walking out of the Rainbow Room in New York City. A lot of people wanted him to be some dumb Okie, wear a straw hat and everything. So Woody left this high paying gig and walked through that marble floor lobby whanging his guitar as hard as he could.
Woody later reflected in his book Bound For Glory, that “I never hear my guitar ring so loud and so long and so clear as it did there in them high-polished marble halls. Every note was 10 times as loud, and so was my singing. I filled myself full of free air and sung as loud as the building would stand. I wanted the poodle dogs leading the ladies around to stick up their noses and wonder what in the hell had struck that joint. People had walked hushed up and too nice and quiet through these tiled floors too long. I decided that for this minute, for this one snap of their lives, they’d see a human walking through that place, not singing because he was hired and told what to sing, but just walking through there thinking about the world and singing about it.”
No money in your pocket and refusing to take a gig that will poke fun at you, but feed your belly. What standards for a starving musician.
“The worst thing you can do in this world is to lose touch with the people. Remember, it’s just maybe, someday, sometime, somebody will pick you up and look at your picture and read your message, and carry you in his pocket, and lay you on his shelf, and burn you in his stove. But he’ll have your message in his head and he’ll talk it and it’ll get around.”
A young Bob Dylan claimed to have a Woody Guthrie signature with the slogan “I Ain’t Dead Yet” written on it. With songs like Guthrie’s he never will be.