Woody Guthrie at 100

Saturday would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday (thanks to Carl for blogging about this already). Woody Guthrie is one of my favourite singers, and surely one of the greatest ever songwriters as well as a great American radical. As a wordsmith, he is up there with Bob Dylan (whose whole oeuvre is un-imaginable without Guthrie’s influence), with John Steinbeck or Kenneth Patchen.

My mother brought me up on Woody, and I believe her parents brought her up on him. I’ve passed him on to my sons, who sing songs like “Pretty Boy Floyd” and the Car Song.

A number of blogs have featured nice tributes to him: my comrade Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist, Ernie at 27 Leggies, and Boyhowdy at Cover Lay Down. That last one is covers, of which Jeffrey Foucault’s “Philadelphia Lawyer“, John McCutcheon’ “1913 Massacre“, Pierce Pettis’ “Pastures Of Plenty” and Slaid Cleaves‘ “This Morning I Am Born Again” are particularly good. Beck is not up there with them, but is surprisingly good.

I’ve written a fair amount on Woody before, at BobFromBrockley and Poumista. Here’s some links: “Folk music”, folk music, trad jazz, and the trad left; This Land Is Our Land; Good and bad versions of Deportees; Our Humanly Race; Stalinist songs of the Spanish Civil War (scroll down); Jesus Christ; We Shall Be Free; Vigilante Man; Hobo’s Lullaby.

Like Jim, I have reservations about a hagiographic approach to Woody Guthrie, who was at the very least a close fellow traveller of the Communist Party at a time when the Stalinist regime was committing some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. (Jim recommends Scott Borchert’s very interesting “Woody Guthrie: Redder than Remembered” from Monthly Review.) But that does not diminish him as an artist in my eyes.

I’ve had a hard time choosing which song to accompany with post with, but I think “Jesus Christ”, which Carl’s post featured, is the right one:


About bobfrombrockley

South London family man. Eating bacon bagels on the 171 bus, listening to Johnny Cash while reading Hannah Arendt, the kid next to me playing dubstep on his telephone. Mostly politics at http://brockley.blogspot.com and mostly music at https://bobsbeat.wordpress.com

7 comments on “Woody Guthrie at 100

  1. […] [This post is cross-posted from Bob's Beats] […]

  2. when my family left oklahoma (oklahoma city, to be precise–the OKC) we all sang “so long, it’s been good to know ya” as our old beat up ford mercury pulled on to route 66, and, sure enough, we eventually made it to california. of course, this was 1959, not 1935, and there was an unconscionable six year layover in st. louis missouri before i got to see the pacific ocean, but, nonetheless, my parents knew all the lyrics, and, after repeated hearings, so did i. another big family favorite was “good night irene.” although i seem to remember my uncle chas once singing “philadelphia lawyer” which has always been a personal favorite of mine. and, surprisingly, given the times and the location (st. louis, early 60s), in the 2nd or 3rd grade, we learned “this land is your land” which everyone liked to sing much better than that stupid, chauvinistic and unsingable ballad of francis scott key’s. however, it wasn’t until i was in my late teens or early 20s that i heard songs like “pretty boy floyd” or “east texas red.” so woody was a part of my childhood too.

  3. oops! “goodnight irene” was by lead belly, wasn’t it? anyway, it was one of those songs my family used to sing in the car when we took long trips. or you’d sing it at camp. and everyone seemed to know the lyrics. i mean, not just members of my immediate family, but it seems a lot of people back then did.

  4. Les, great to hear from you after so long! Reminded me why I invited you to contribute to this blog. Hope you are considering it. If you need me to re-send the invite, ask.

    “Goodnight Irene” was first recorded by Lead Belly, but it is probably a traditional song, or variation on it. I thought Woody Guthrie recorded a version, using Lead Belly’s lyrics, for Folkways, and I associate it with him not Lead Belly, but I can’t see it on the Guthrie discographies on the net.

    My grandfather also sang it to me on occasion in my childhood, and it was on a Weavers album that was either my mother’s or my grandparents’ that my sister now has, and that’s the version I know well – with mildly Bowdlerized lyrics (minus the morphine references) http://www.peteseeger.net/timeiren.htm . It was a hit single for them, on the B side of “Tzena Tzena Tzena”, back when leftists liked Israel.

  5. Also, Guthrie recycled the tune and format of “Goodnight, Irene” once or twice, for “Roll on, Columbia”

    and “Ramblin’ Round”

  6. […] for music, that of Kitty Wells, unbelievably well into her nineties (only seven years younger than Woody Guthrie in fact). Part of the reason that surprises me is how relatively late she hit stardom, with […]

  7. […] of Waylon and Jessi. Both songs are lovely. One is especially pertinent, as it is a song by Woody Guthrie, and a wonderful version too. The other song, often played at funerals, is by JB Wright, about whom […]

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