Man Out of Time

Two albums devoted to Woody Guthrie discover new notes in the people's music. Does the song remain the same?

In early May, 1941, Woody Guthrie loaded a rickety Pontiac with wife, children, and possessions, his desperate mind fixing on a tentative job prospect and a new beginning. Though the fix he was in resembled that of the confused, battered people that populated his songs, Woody Guthrie was no mortgaged Okie migrant, no Tom Joad. He was a nationally recognized troubadour and former New York radio star. It wasn't the dusty soil that had driven him to desperation, but his depleted imagination, drained by the demands for "authenticity" and "American originality" placed on it by a slew of radio sponsors, leftist folk epicures, and his own expectations. In fact, Guthrie wasn't even leaving showbiz altogether; he was on his way to make a movie in Oregon.

The bit of celluloid propaganda for which the Guthries straggled North--a patriotic documentary of the construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams--was never filmed; its funding was siphoned into the U.S. war chest as American involvement overseas became inevitable. But Woody found more pity among the dam builders than the Okies ever got in California, and the Bonneville Power Authority hired him as a day laborer for $266.66 a month. And as he spent a month surveying the construction, 26 songs gushed forth from Woody's pen, songs drunk with hope for the possibilities of collective creation.

Among the giddiest was "Talking Columbia." A pumping harmonica launches into a tune, a talking blues whose roots have been traced back to the days of minstrelsy. But the imagery is wildly expansive, more like Whitman kicked into overdrive than any folk blues or country ballad.

Before this public works project, he sings, the Columbia was "a river that was going to waste." But Woody glimpsed hints of a future socialism in this massive federal labor initiative. Not only would the dam provide irrigation for struggling farmers, it would yoke previously uncontrolled natural forces to their proper task--to produce stuff for people, products ranging from "fertilizer to sewing machines to atomic bedrooms and plastic." At this point, Guthrie cuts short and strums on, building suspense. Finally he bursts out with an epochal aside: "Everything's gonna be plastic!" Guthrie crows, launching into a list of soon-to-be-met needs, a list that might have continued indefinitely if he weren't so impatient to proclaim the coda: "Of course, I don't like dictators none myself, but I think the whole country oughta be run by...


The irony here is that for Woody the world was already plastic--a malleable hunk of raw material waiting to be synthesized into meaning by any man who wasn't afraid of hard work. Not just the woods and the water and the land (which, as he sang, were "made for you and me"). Historical events and musical tradition were to be bent to meet immediate needs. The tune for "So Long It's Been Good to Know You" was adapted from the '20s folk song "Billy the Kid." Early on, the lyrics mutated to describe an apocalyptic dust storm; later they rallied behind the war effort; and, during a radio performance on Model Tobacco's Pipe Smoking Time, they even shilled for his corporate sponsors.

The past didn't need to be preserved. It needed to be utilized to create a future. So although the version of "Talking Columbia" included on the just-released set of 1940s Guthrie recordings, Hard Travelin', was recorded six years after it was written, Woody hesitates while singing it as if the words are just striking him. At any point during the performance, it seems as if a flash of insight or a memory lapse could force him to veer off into a new set of unexpected images. A new invocation of power.

Hard Travelin' is the third in a four-volume set of material culled from the recordings Guthrie made in New York with Folkways founder Moe Asch from 1944 to 1947. Volume 1 was a master stroke, rescuing "This Land Is Your Land" from memories of earnest grade-school sing-alongs lead by hippie-holdovers-turned-teachers.

Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place was lucky enough to discover a version of "This Land" long thought unrecorded, in which Woody roams and rambles past a sign marked "Private Property." "But on the back side," Woody notes, "it didn't say nothing." Place and Guthrie scholar Guy Logsdon situate the anthem at the beginning, middle, and end of the album, surrounding it with "Jesus Christ" (about the radical carpenter rather than the Son of God) and "Mr. Lindbergh" (about Lindbergh the fascist-sympathizing isolationist, not Lindbergh the transatlantic aviator). In doing so, they document the defiant socialist roots of Guthrie's populism.

But Volume 3 documents Woody's belief in the power of plasticity, the ability to bend tradition to his vision as the Bonneville harnessed the Columbia River. Most of the songs were inspired by Woody's ability to link two events: the proliferation of the union movement and World War II. A frequenter of union rallies, Woody adopted folk melodies so everyone could sing along with him. A patriot who despised capitalism, Woody adopted Hitler as a folk demon so everyone could hate along with him.

Woody expanded the definition of fascism to include anyone whose greed set up obstacles to people who wanted to work and sing together. "It's a union world I'm fighting for," he declared, always sure not to specify whether that battle raged overseas or on picket lines against little Hitlers like scabs, bosses, and anti-labor vigilantes. As he inscribed on his guitar, "This Machine Kills Fascists."

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