Friday, 13 July 2012

Here's to you Woody Guthrie

Today is the centenary of the birth of the American folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma; he died in 1967 in a New York psychiatric hospital where he had been confined for many years with Huntington's chorea, an inherited degenerative condition.

Guthrie is the epitome of the American rebel, the little guy standing up to the rich and powerful, but in politics, like fellow folk singer Pete Seeger, he stuck closely to the line of the US Communist Party that they both supported. Seeger's song lyrics in World War II changed every time the CP twisted and turned, from C for Conscription ("Well it's C for Conscription/C for Capitol Hill....That passed that goddamn bill....I'd rather be here home/ Even sleeping in a holler log/Than go to the army/And be treated like a dirty dog!") during the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Deliver the Goods ("We're working in the cities, we're working in the woods/We'll all work together to deliver the goods/I got a new job and I'm working overtime/Turning out tanks on the assembly line/Got to crank up the factories like the president said/Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.") after the German invasion of Russia in 1941.

A lot of people know about Guthrie through Billy Bragg's recordings of his unpublished lyrics or Bob Dylan's Song to Woody on his eponymous first album ("Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song/ ’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along/Seems it's sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn/ It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born") but I first heard him on a BBC2 Arena documentary in the late 80's presented by Alan Yentob. Not long after that, a General Studies teacher at school who was into blues and folk played us some more of his songs, as well as one by the Mississippi blues pioneer Charlie Patton.

Guthrie is probably best known in the US for writing This Land is Your Land, in response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America which he hated.

Radio 4 has a programme about Woody tonight, presented by his biographer Joe Klein.

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