Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. And this week we're putting out an album that's (sort of) about Woody Guthrie. More specifically, the songs are about the gap between the guy in this picture and the real, flesh-and-blood man. Or how I understand him anyway. I wrote the songs about a fictionalized version of Guthrie in the middle of his physical, mental and professional decline. That version is more interesting to me than the flannel-clad killer of fascists better known to the popular imagination.
When you first come to Guthrie's work, much of the topical material probably feels dated. Like most subversive art, the bulk of it seems to have run its course. The guy in the picture is a canonized saint of an ancient faith. And on top of it all, you'll find a healthy dose of proto-hippie optimism that might be a bit too saccharine for your taste.
It's relevant to note that behind that picture there's a boy who lost his sister when his childhood home burned to the ground. And a boy whose mother was taken to a mental institution because of a mysterious congenital illness. And there's a young man who lost his daughter and his home to another fire. And there's a shiftless middle-aged man, progressively losing his faculties, hitchhiking and hopping trains around the country like a strange parody of his younger self. Finally there's a man in his fifties, trembling in a Brooklyn infirmary; by this point the disease he inherited from his mother has taken away any ability to use a typewriter or play guitar. Only a few miles away, the Greenwich village folk revival that momentarily resuscitated the Guthrie legend has all but died off.
All the conviction in his songs that the future would be better than the past has to be understood as a blade of light cutting through the black void of all that loss.
When he was at the height of his powers, he fashioned himself a sort of Old Testament prophet. This is the myth most people are familiar with. In those years, he churned out poetic jeremiads against the powerful, animated by a belief in a quasi-divine judgment that would come to crush all oppressors and raise up the lowly.
Not much later, he was institutionalized, and his output was mostly reduced to scribbled letters to estranged loved ones, begging them to visit. He’d become more conscious of his own failures, and a desire for forgiveness had eclipsed his former desire for justice. His preoccupation with wrath had been largely displaced by a deeper and more unshakeable obsession with mercy.
The prophet is a version of the man you can worship. The invalid is a version you can love.
There are any number of stories we can tell about ourselves, but the real story is usually in the gap between ourselves and that story. Everyone exists somewhere in the space between reality and myth.
Guthrie wrote all his rousing anthems of solidarity when both he and the country were at the height of their powers. They both had a myth they could believe in. But we’re a long ways away from that time, and I don’t think there’s a way back to it.
The gap between ourselves and our story has broadened, and the primary antagonisms that informed Guthrie’s greatest songs have doubled back on themselves. We no longer live in a universe of heroes and villains. Or unions and fascists. Or us and them. The new antagonism is us and us.
I believe Guthrie’s songs are still powerful, but they require you to hold two versions of their author in your mind at the same time. If you can only hear Guthrie the savior, then you’re left with dusty relics of the past: “topical songs.” But when you hear the songs as belonging equally to Guthrie the sufferer, they begin to spark and hum just as they must have 80 years ago. Those songs always spoke to both the strong and the weak. To prosperity and decline.
A timeless song bursts from the ground and over time grows knotted flesh and veiny leaves, seemingly motionless as the world moves all around it. When those songs were new, they saw a great open sky they could reach toward. And they still do, but now they also look down at the earth from a higher place, observing what has changed and what has not.
For a song to endure the way Guthrie’s songs have is miraculous. More properly, it’s an example of the one miracle: rebirth. Those songs have found new lips and new ears for four generations. I’ve seen children sing “This Land is Your Land,” dancing ecstatically like it was the single greatest thing they’d ever heard.
A timeless song can only be grasped from the point where past and future meet, where shadow touches sunlight, where righteousness kisses peace. That’s where the truth has always been, and it’s there still.
“That song and that tune ain’t got no end. And it ain’t got no notes wrote down. And there ain’t no piece of paper big enough to write it down on…this ain’t a song you can write down and sell. This song is everywhere at the same time. Have you heard it? I have.” -Woody Guthrie