by Steve Earle
When Bob Dylan took the stage at the 1965
Newport Folk Festival, all leather and Ray-Bans and Beatle boots, and declared
emphatically and (heaven forbid) electrically that he wasn't "gonna work
on Maggie's farm no more," the folk music faithful took it personally.
They had come to see the scruffy kid with the dusty suede jacket pictured
on the covers of Bob Dylan and Freewheelin'. They wanted
to hear topical songs. Political songs. Songs like The Lonesome Death
of Hattie Carroll, Masters of War and Blowin' in the Wind.
They wanted the heir apparent. The Dauphin. They wanted Woody Guthrie.
Dylan wasn't goin' for it. He struggled
through two electric numbers before he and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band
retreated backstage. After a few minutes he returned alone and, armed with
only an acoustic guitar, delivered a scathing It's All Over Now, Baby
Blue and walked.
Woody Guthrie himself had long since been
silenced by Huntington's chorea, a hereditary brain-wasting disease, leaving
a hole in the heart of American music that would never be filled, and Dylan
may have been the only person present at Newport that day with sense enough
to know it.
One does not become Woody Guthrie by design.
Dylan knew that because he had tried. We all tried, every one of us who
came along later and tried to follow in his footsteps only to find that
no amount of study, no apprenticeship, no regimen of self-induced hard
travelin' will ever produce another Woody. Not in a million years.
Woody Guthrie was what folks who don't
believe in anything would call an anomaly. Admittedly, the intersection
of space and time at the corner of July 14, 1912, and Okemah, Oklahoma,
was a long shot to produce anything like a national treasure.
Woody was born in one of the most desolate
places in America, just in time to come of age in the worst period in our
history. Then again, the Dust Bowl itself was no accident either.
After the Civil War, the United States
government and the railroads, mistakenly believing that the Great Plains
would make swell farmland, killed off all the buffalo, effectively neutralizing
the indigenous population, and opened up vast expanses of prairie to homesteading.
Problem was that the head-high buffalo grass that thrived in the thin topsoil
had slowly adapted to its deceptively hostile environment over several
thousand years. It took less than seventy years for nonnative water- and
mineral-greedy crops to wring every last nutrient from the traumatized
earth, creating a vast man-made desert and setting in motion a mass migration
of folks from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma out west to California, where
they hoped against hope for a better life.
Most found only bigotry and exploitation
at the hands of wealthy fruit and vegetable growers. Woody found an audience.
He sang in the migrant camps and on the picket lines up and down the lush
interior valleys. A few well-meaning outsiders were sympathetic to the
plight of the migrants, but they were college boys who used a lot of big
words like "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" and unintentionally made the
Okies feel small. But Woody was one of their own. He spoke their language
and he sang their songs, and every once in a while he'd slip in one of
those big words in between a tall tale and an outlaw ballad. As he became
more outraged he became more radical, but his songs and his patter always
maintained a sense of humor and hope. He said, "I ain't a Communist necessarily,
but I been in the red all my life."
Woody arrived at his social conscience
organically, over a period of years. Socialism made a lot of sense in the
Great Depression. Capitalism had, after all, essentially collapsed and
wasn't showing any significant signs of reviving in Pampa, Texas, where
Woody spent his late adolescence. The ultimate hillbilly autodidact, he
divided his time between teaching himself to play several musical instruments
only tolerably well and frequent marathon sessions in the public library,
where he clandestinely educated himself. He followed his own haphazard
curriculum, one book leading him to another in an endless scavenger hunt
for answers that invariably posed even deeper questions. An acute interest
in psychology segued into medieval mysticism and from there he stumbled
into Eastern philosophy and spiritualism. He went through a poetry period,
a Shakespeare period, even a law book period. When, a few years later,
he began to travel around the Southwest by thumb and freight train, his
mind was wide open when he encountered crusty old radicals who handed out
copies of The Little Red Song Book and preached the Gospel of Union. It
was only natural that when he began to make up his own songs, he drew on
the despair and pain he had witnessed all his life and the lofty ideas
that ricocheted around in his head for inspiration. He became the living
embodiment of everything a people's revolution is supposed to be about:
that working people have dignity, intelligence and value above and beyond
the market's demand for their labor.
Not that Woody was a rank-and-file worker.
In fact, he managed to avoid manual labor more strenuous than sign-painting
his entire life. He was, however, born into the working class and managed
to distinguish himself not by "pulling himself up by his bootstraps" and
toeing the line but rather by trusting his own talent and vision.
He was no angel, either. Those closest
to him sometimes found him hard to love. His family (he had two) sometimes
suffered for his convictions, as he constantly sabotaged himself, especially
when things were going well financially. In the long run, his political
integrity was unassailable, because money and its trappings made him genuinely
By the time the 1950s blacklists got around
to folk singers, Woody wasn't affected, as he was already succumbing to
the disease that had institutionalized and eventually killed his mother,
and he was slowly slipping away. Ramblin' Jack Elliott got there in time
to hang out with him out in Coney Island. By the early 1960s Woody was
hospital-bound, but he spent weekends at the home of longtime fan Bob Gleason.
Bob Dylan and other up-and-coming folkies made the pilgrimage and sang
for him there. When Woody finally died, in the fall of 1967, he was eulogized
in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. He left behind an
army of imitators and a catalogue of songs that people will be dusting
off and singing for as long as they make guitars.
For me personally, Woody is my hero of
heroes and the only person on earth that I will go to my grave regretting
that I never met. When I invoked his name in Christmas in Washington,
I meant it. Clinton was being re-elected in a landslide and I had voted
for him and I wasn't sure why and I needed something to hang on to, someone
to say something. I needed, well...a hero.
Does all this mean that the world would
be a different place if Woody had dodged the genetic bullet and lived?
You bet your progressive ass! Just imagine what we missed! Woody publishing
his second and third books! Woody on the picket lines with Cesar Chavez
and the farmworkers singin' Deportee! I could go on forever. I have
imagined hundreds of similar scenarios, but then at some point it always
dawns on me how selfish I am.
Let him go. He did his bit. Besides, as
much as we need him right now, I wouldn't wish this post-9/11 world on
Woody. He hated Irving Berlin's God Bless America more than any
other song in the world. He believed that it was jingoistic and exclusive,
so he wrote a song of his own. It goes:
This land is your land
This land is my land
To the New York island
From the redwood forest
To the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.