The Blue Door’s annual Woody Guthrie song swap brings together a disparate group of talented singers and artists. Watching this gathering invigorates a sense of Guthrie’s vast songbook, drawn from a lifetime of listening to people and converting their daily struggles into song.
Greg Johnson, who shares close friendships with folk luminaries Lucinda Williams, Michael Fracasso and Kevin Welch, started his annual Guthrie tribute in 1991 while living in Austin. At the time, Guthrie’s musical legacy was more obscure.
“Even though Bruce Springsteen started singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ in concert around 1985, the idea of Woody Guthrie as a force in modern folk or one central to the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement was still just a romantic notion,” Johnson said.
That notion gained traction, most notably in Oklahoma City, when Woody’s sister, Mary Jo Guthrie Edgmon, responded to Johnson’s 1994 Oklahoma Gazette column, Happy Birthday Woody, Sorry No One Seems to Care. Guthrie Edgmon has attended the shows since, including the 2015 installment in December.
In recent years, Johnson has met the festival’s challenge of housing his favorite songwriters from the early Austin days while lending a little musicology and giving a more upscale venue to the millennial generation of songwriters. Continuing the Guthrie tribute show provides a more intimate and conversationally rich place for artists old and young to play and ruminate on Guthrie’s songs — finding their own voice through stories of the past.
“My tribute shows are a chance for songwriters to express their political and social concerns via a Woody song,” Johnson said. “For example, John Fullbright now does ‘Deportee‘ as a slap in the face of the Donald Trump view of Americanism. He even changed ‘deportee’ to ‘refugee’ in the last verse, allowing this great song to breathe new life into the immigration story.”
Troubadour of migrants and farmers
Born July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie is most famous for singing a tune nearly as popular as the National Anthem. It states an American principle and promise that “this land was made for you and me.” It was written in February of 1940.
As an American folk artist, Guthrie became known as a troubadour of migrants and farmers. While he associated with them and spoke their dialect (often as a radio or newspaper character: eg. the Woody Sez column), his interests were intellectual and vast, and his sensitivity unusual and mystic.
Guthrie had a sensibility that declared his home as nowhere, and his later track record proved it:
- Radio show in New York City
- Champion of the black folk singer Leadbelly during segregation
- Unlikely resident poet of the Grand Coulee Dam in Oregon
- Husband to a dancer in Coney Island
The job he held at any given moment was a tenuous station due to his reputation as a radical, but disparate artists like Bruce Springsteen, Jay Farrar, Tom Morello and Bob Dylan have all attempted to channel Woody.
Bob Dylan’s enduring tribute
In particular, Dylan famously began his career as a facsimile of Guthrie. Even when Dylan started looking for more immediate and electric, modernist influences for his art, Guthrie’s spirit never left him.
It can be heard in Dylan’s recent interview with AARP, where he bemoans the decline of the Detroit auto industry. A rambling homelessness is also reflected in Dylan’s decision to stay in every crappy motel in America during his “Never Ending Tour.”
In 1963, Dylan was asked to write 25 words about what Guthrie means to him. He instead wrote five pages, influenced in part by a visit with an ailing Guthrie in New York.
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
‘I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born’
And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you’re lookin’ for somethin’ you ain’t quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world’s a-watchin’ with a window peek stare.
The poem introduces more obstacles to hope: the fakes, the schemers, the exploiters, the physically rough geography of a world without compassion. But Dylan, like the artists celebrating him here, finds this abstract but essential energy in Woody’s body of work and, paradoxically, in the unforgiving but divine American landscape. You look for this elusive thing, and maybe, briefly, you can somehow capture it on a diner napkin.
More from Dylan’s tribute:
Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
Where would Woody Guthrie be if he were singing today? Would he be busking at the front of the Belle Isle Walmart at midnight, when hard workers finally have the time to grocery shop? If Woody were singing today, would minor gossip blogs swipe at him for being a pretentious protester, the way one local blog does to internationally acclaimed singer Samantha Crain?
My guess is the modern climate would drive Woody Guthrie insane. Still, it’s hard to know what he would look like today. Through a mustard gas of technology, demands on our personal pocket books, and a petty bourgeois culture of cool, it becomes near impossible (and bad manners) to ask the vital questions: Who controls the means of production? Who is being exploited?
This Land Is Your Land has assumed a kind of compromised permanence in my mind, in which I hear the jingle, appreciate the traveling folksinger, take pride in his Oklahoma-ness, and, ultimately, forget the words. This memory lapse has something to do with a loss of class consciousness in the globalized, glamorous and competitive marketplace of the United States.
Today, when unionized labor and public outcry have been diminished, Johnson still likes the idea of carrying forward the things for which Guthrie stood.
“Woody Guthrie was simply about looking after the next guy in line,” Johnson said. “When I decide on who to invite, I look for songwriters who share his passion and compassion and want to be another link in that chain. Even though we now have a great music festival in his name, it’s only on this night that one gets to hear all-Woody songs, making it more about Woody than any individual artist.”