On This Day In Music History: Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie was born, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, on this day, July 14, in 1912. He was the third of five children of Charley and Nora Guthrie of Okemah, OK.

So: Woody Guthrie. Where do I start?

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music called him: “Dean of American Folk artists.” Fellow Oklahoman Guy Logsdon wrote: “Woody’s creative contributions to our culture are legion. He remains an inspirational figure for folk songwriters, social protest and topical songwriters, and rock and folk rock songwriters.”

Bob Dylan called him: “The true voice of the American spirit.”

All of that is very nice, and true, but…

Woody Guthrie wrote songs.

So many songs! “Do Re Mi,” “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh),” “Bling-Blang,” “Mail Myself To You” and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land,” to name but a very few. (These are just the ones that I play.)

Joe Klein, in his Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980), describes Woody’s lyric writing process in the late 1930’s: “Usually he’d start off with a general idea and then a key phrase would come to him and he’d find a snatch of an old tune to fit the phrase, and then set the rest of the words to that tune. The music usually was an afterthought. The words were the most important.”

In his musical autobiography, Where Have All The Flowers Gone (1997), Pete Seeger wrote: “When Woody Guthrie made up a song, more often than not he put new words to an old melody, often without thinking of what the old song was. He’d be thinking of his new words. In the back of his mind were a bunch of good old melodies floating around; he’d reach up, pull one down and try it out.”

Woody Guthrie played guitar.

During his set at George Wein’s Folk Festival 50 in Newport, RI on August 1, 2009, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, legendary Folk singer and close friend of Woody Guthrie’s said: “Woody loved the Carter Family and Maybelle Carter was his favorite guitar player.”

All you’ve got to do is listen to one of his recordings, and you hear that classic Carter style of strumming, especially in the introductions of songs like “Do Re Mi” and “Dusty Old Dust (So Long…).” He even does a Maybelle Carter-style guitar solo in the middle of “I Ain’t Got No Home” from Dust Bowl Ballads. He plays a pretty good harmonica, too!

Woody Guthrie sang.

In his Chronicles, Volume One (2004), Bob Dylan described Woody’s singing: “His voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch.”

Woody Guthrie made records.

So many records! He not only recorded his own songs, but dozens of traditional Folk songs, some of his versions proving to be the definitive versions of the song.

He was first recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress archives in March of 1940. His first commercial recordings were made, thanks again to Alan Lomax, for Victor Records on May 3, 1940. They were released as a two-album, twelve-(78 rpm)-record  set entitled: Dust Bowl Ballads. Woody went on to record hundreds of songs for Moses Asch and his Folkways Records. His last session was for Decca Records in January, 1952.

Again from Chronicles, Dylan describes the first time he really listened to a Woody Guthrie record: “When the needle dropped, I was stunned – didn’t know if I was stoned or straight… It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted… It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room…It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.”

Woody’s recordings are readily available. The Dust Bowl Ballads and the Library of Congress Recordings are on CD on Rounder Records. Smithsonian Folkways released a four-volume CD set of The Asch Recordings. There are many others.

If you’ve never listened to Woody Guthrie, you should. If you haven’t listened to him recently, you should listen to him again, soon. Maybe today.

What better way to celebrate his birthday?!

Woody Guthrie passed away on October 3, 1967 in Greystone Park Hospital, Queens, New York.

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