I enjoyed Willem Lange’s fine piece on Woody Guthrie in the Nov. 25 Herald / Times Argus. I myself first discovered Woody’s music as a young teenager growing up in Buffalo in the early 1950s. It was a few years before Elvis Presley came along to shake his hips and to shake up the blandly complacent music of those equally complacent times.
One Labor Day back then, I tuned our family’s old Philco radio to a CBC station out of Hamilton or Toronto, Canada, expecting to hear the same old dulcet-voice crooners who seemed to believe that rhyming “moon” and “June” in a song was the height of lyrical creativity.
Imagine my surprise when I heard instead a voice as dry, acrid and astringent as the dust-laden winds that had swept through the American Southwest during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. The voice, of course, belonged to Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and the songs I heard, most of them self-penned, had nothing to do with moons in June, but everything to do with the plight of the Dust Bowl refugees and migrant workers.
There were also songs about the dignity of physical labor and the dignity and worth of the common man and common woman. Very often they were about the exploitation of these people by the banks and big money interests of his day. Leave it to a Canadian radio station to remind Americans sunning themselves at the beach on this Labor Day what Labor Day was really about and what a long road the working poor had to travel to get to where they were by the early 1950s. Woody had traveled on this road with them and never forgot the struggle of these people.
For Bruce Springsteen it was Bob Dylan who woke him up, who “kicked in the door” for him. It is good to remember in this centennial year of Guthrie’s birth that it was Woody who “kicked in” the door for Dylan and for those of us who, like Dylan, came of age in the 1950s. Actually, in these economically troubled times it would be good for all of us to remember Woody’s musical credo, which was “to fight the kinds of songs” that make people think they are “no good for nothing” because they are too poor or have had back luck or some “hard travelling.”
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