Music journalist and activist ALEXANDER BILLET looks at what has made Woody Guthrie’s legacy so enduring.
Few musicians or songwriters have had as massive an impact on American music as Woody Guthrie. “This Land Is Your Land” is one of the best-known songs in US history — even among those who know nothing else of Guthrie’s works. It’s been featured over the years in commercials for Coca-Cola and American Airlines, and performed on floats at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Conversely, it’s also filled the air at union rallies, anti-war demonstrations and—most recently—actions of the Occupy movement.
This year, there are countless concerts, performances, and other events being planned to celebrate what would have been Guthrie’s hundredth birthday. These events and more are welcome. Guthrie’s legacy is one well worth celebrating. But perhaps because of the sheer omnipresence of his influence, there persists a nebulous, “all things to all people” atmosphere surrounding the songwriter’s work.
As always, it’s a lot more complex than that. While Guthrie the myth may be easily manipulated and used, there’s a good chance that Guthrie the man might balk at his music being used to sell soda. After all, this was an artist who once passionately declared his outright hatred for what capitalism does to music:
“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own songs and to sing the kind that knock you down farther… the ones that make you think you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that.”
Recent years have also seen discoveries surrounding the “original” or “lost” verses of “This Land,” which show its content to be less of a celebratory missive than a bold reminder of American inequality. This is on top of scholarship seeking to bring Guthrie’s radicalism back to the center of an appreciation of his art, including the recent Woody Guthrie, American Radical, by University of Central Lancashire professor Will Kaufman.
The sanitizing of Guthrie is nothing alien to the music business; anyone familiar with the real legacies of John Lennon, Bob Marley and so many others will recognize this process. Rebellion might be dangerous, but it’s also cool. And if a musician’s radicalism can be hewn from their artistic greatness, then the bucks roll in unencumbered. What’s more, Guthrie’s career coincided with and was a crucial component in the formation of American popular music. Stripping his music of its subversive content means doing the same for a key link American history.