Monday, July 9, 2012

Woody Guthrie at 100: American struggles and dreams

It’s not widely known that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” — a song penned in 1940 that would later become a grade-school classic — was written as a rejoinder to another American standard, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song that gained currency in pre-World War II America.

Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this week, felt Berlin’s song was overly patriotic and didn’t address the struggles and dreams of the ordinary Americans he knew, says Jeff Place, archivist for the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. And so Guthrie penned “This Land” (originally titled “God Blessed America”) as a retort that emphasized the country’s shared resources and egalitarianism, and included verses like this that would cheer populists (not to mention today’s Occupy movement):

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. He died in 1967 at 55, felled by Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that wore him down physically and mentally in the last third of his life. But in the prime of his career, from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s, Guthrie produced a trove of songs that would define the era, songs that spoke to the hardships of Depression-era America, Dust Bowl refugees, migrant workers, labor strife, racial inequity, economic justice and war.

With songs like “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Hard Travelin’,” “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore),” “Deportees,” and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie developed a reputation as a truthteller and a fighter for the little guy. He earned plaudits and acclaim for his genuineness, clever songwriting and ability to distill political and personal sentiment into catchy and simple chorus-verse-chorus ditties. (He famously claimed that anyone who played more than three chords was “just showing off.”) But his political outspokenness also earned Guthrie an FBI file and assertions that he belonged to the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter also thinks that America needs to hear his songs now more than ever. “His spirit is really starting to grow within our culture. This [anniversary year] has allowed me to get in touch with what he means to this country and especially what we all need now which is to get up and use our voices. To hear his words right now is really potent.”

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