I knew I loved Woody Guthrie before I even heard him.
That was because of the idea of Woody Guthrie — an irresistibly simple tale, brought forth to the public imagination by the young Bob Dylan — Woody Guthrie was this guy who rambled around America during the Great Depression Dust Bowl & wrote beautiful, piercing songs that captured what life was like. Dylan once famously said that if you listened to his records, you could learn how to live. Yeah, it was kind of like that.
The truth, of course, is more complicated & uglier in a way — when I finally did hear Woody Guthrie, he didn't have the nestled-in gravel of Dylan, but rather a sharp, nasal sound that rolled over his dust-dry melodies & hammer-on-filled guitar picking. It didn't sound sweeping or epic, but more like a wiry little guy who someone asked to stand in a room & run through some songs. But maybe that was the point all along.
When I finally got myself an education in Guthrie-ism by reading Joe Klein's remarkable Woody Guthrie: A Life from 1981, it turns out that the backstory is closer to the stark sound of what I first heard, as opposed to the dream I had first thought. Klein makes no bones about it — he says in his introduction that, until he wrote this book, he had the image of Woody Guthrie as a hobo with a guitar, heading off to see what was around the next corner & singing "This Land Is Your Land." He made Guthrie sound like Johnny Appleseed, a myth to tell the kiddies. The reality, he wrote, was often at odds to this idea, & a whole lot more complicated.
When Woody Guthrie hit the road in the 1930s, he was married with children. He would just sort of up & leave them with little-to-no warning, & when he would return home, he would pace the floor restlessly. The book taught me that he didn't spend the entire time on one big romantic, aimless trip — a hobo's On the Road — but just took a ton of little trips, circling from his native Oklahoma, up around the Dust Bowl & out West, & then back home for a few weeks or days or minutes. & then he was off again. It was less like a hungry search than it was an obsessive restlessness.
But the disconnect between how we think of Guthrie & what he actually did was first bridged by none other than Guthrie himself. Just read his autobiography, Bound for Glory, & you'll instantly understand how quickly the romanticism can overpower the reality. From the hobos singing "This train is bound for glory" on the first page, it strikes perfect poses between fact & fiction, history & remembrance.
For everything that Guthrie was or wasn't, he had a shrewd understanding of America, & what it meant. The land was big, & it was ours, & the only thing that could be done was to live in it — go to the Dakotas, travel to California, see the lazy Rio Grande. The fact that he did so in a time in which the land was at its worst — the Dust Bowl — only makes his plight that much more fascinating — &, perhaps, modern. Struggling with this wide-eyed wonder is people starving & black dust storms that felt like nothing less than an apocalypse. My favorite Woody Guthrie song is "The Great Dust Storm," in which he covers a single day — April 14, 1935 — & cuts all around the country to document its fallout. But for all of the wonderful little lines about here & there — "In old Dodge City, Kansas, the wind it blew so strong/They thought that they could hold out but they didn't know how long" — the best lines are focused on a much tighter scene:
& the families they were huddled
Into their oil boom-shacks
& the children then was crying
As it whistled through the cracks.
Who wrote songs where wind storms whistle through the cracks of clapboard poverty shacks? In 1935, no less?! It was as though the great American persona — blunt, dry, & deadpan — had found its way to a guy with the observational skills of a Dante & the scope of a Joyce. In these four lines, you can all but unlock Bob Dylan's first three albums.
Of course, for all of the stuff I've seen about the Guthrie centennial, I've seen no mention of "The Great Dust Storm." Everyone opts instead for "This Land Is Your Land," which makes sense; even Woody would tell you that the best thing a writer can do is hook their reader in right away. Everyone knows the song, even if they don't really know it, the wheat fields waving, the diamond deserts. &, as you've probably already read about half a dozen times, that song was a protest song written in disgust against "God Bless America," & given the most unforgotten "forgotten" verse in American song: A lovely final one in which a private property sign says nothing on its other side — & that side was made for you & me — that guaranteed it would never be included in anything other than Joe McCarthy's playlist.
But for me, "The Great Dust Storm" is the one that brings it all together. In it, you get Guthrie the poet & Guthrie the reporter, as well as the first evidence that the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. It was this lesson that Dylan took in the deepest, & in turn, every songwriter in his wake, from Bruce Springsteen down through Josh Ritter. Is it any wonder Dylan would begin to write songs by reading a newspaper?
Like America, Woody Guthrie is a lot — mythic, romantic, lofty, flawed, rough, untamed, uncivilized, beautiful, epic, compromised, disappointing, heroic, brave, & free. He's a big ol' mess of contradictions, suspicions, rumors, & lies that we'll probably never come close to getting to the bottom of. But, for the 3-&-a-half some-odd minutes that I hear "The Great Dust Storm" play, I hear nothing but the stark observation of a man with the rare trick to evoke the senses & humanize the epic. Compared to "This Land Is Your Land," there are no wistful sweeps to marvel at, no catchy refrain that could be taught to school children. & yet, somehow there is still that shadow of the romantic.
The romanticism, it seems, is supplied by none other than me, turning me from a listener of to a participant of the song, & in turn, the Guthrie myth, the Guthrie persona, & most important, the Guthrie America.
For all of the bumps & scratches — in his voice, in his songs, in the recordings — it still somehow all pulls together into something more epic & beautiful than the some of its parts.
No wonder he still resonates — & inspires.