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Music / Woody Guthrie

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"I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
Woody Guthrie on songwriting

Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) was an American Folk Music singer, seen as one of the most powerful and influential musicians of his day, and a huge troublemaker against the forces of bullshit. He was a major inspiration for a lot of folk and protest singers, among them Bob Dylan, who saw him as his personal hero.

Guthrie sang both traditionals as well as his own material. His songs are very left-wing in nature and sympathize with the common man suffering under poverty, unemployment, racism, war, dictatorship and not being able to voice his opinions.

His Signature Song "This Land Is Your Land" is still a standard, though in its original context, it was actually a Protest Song instead of a Patriotic Fervor song. He originally wrote it as a Take That! to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America,"note  responding to the song's nationalist undertones by singing about the importance of America's diversity and sense of inclusiveness. Hell, some early versions of the song are overtly political in nature—and a few of them even mention Guthrie's support of the Communist Party.

Guthrie may also have written the earliest example of a Concept Album, Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), which is a narrative album about the dust storms that caused havoc on the people during The Great Depression.

In 1952, Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington's disease. The illness forced him to retire from performing and composing, and he spent the final years of his life isolated from everyone except his close family. He eventually died from complications of the disease, and sadly enough, his first two daughters would also die of the disease.

On his birthday, July 14, his hometown Okemah, Oklahoma still organizes an annual folk festival that carries his name. In 2002, a 1944 recording of "This Land Is Your Land" was inducted in the National Recording Registry.

In 1998, a massive collection of lyrics he never set to music was recorded at last as a collaboration between Wilco and Billy Bragg; the project, dubbed Mermaid Avenue, would span two albums as well as a comprehensive box set. His son, Arlo Guthrie, also became a musician himself and is most famous for his album Alice's Restaurant.

Woody Guthrie albums with their own page:

Woody Guthrie's work provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: "Miss Pavlichenko" is about the real-life Soviet sniper Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, who killed 300 Nazis.
  • Alliterative Title: "Pastures Of Plenty", "This Land Is Your Land".
  • Answer Song: Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" was written as an answer to Irving Berlin Patriotic Fervor song "God Bless America".
  • Author Tract: wrote an entire album protesting the bias that was shown in the landmark Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which took place about 20 years prior.
  • Badass Boast: His guitar was famously labeled "This Machine Kills Fascists".
  • Biopic: Bound for Glory
  • Bowdlerization: A lot of modern renditions of "This Land Is Your Land" omit the scathing verses.
  • Concept Album: Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) may be the earliest example of this genre, followed by In the Wee Small Hours (1955) by Frank Sinatra.
  • Cover Version: He covered a lot of traditionals, like "The House of The Rising Sun", "When The Saints Go Marching In", "Polly Wolly Doodle",...
  • Double Entendre:
    • "Hard, Ain't It Hard". The Double Entendre is especially obvious as the first verse ends and the chorus begins:
    And he takes other women right down on his knee
    And he tells them a little tale he won't tell me
    It's a-hard and it's hard, ain't it hard
    To love one who never did love you?
    • "Walt Whitman's Niece", written by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Billy Bragg with Wilco, has several of these in its lyrics.
    And as she read I laid my head
    And I can´t tell which head
    Down in her lap, and I can mention which lap
  • Hobos: Guthrie lived the hobo lifestyle in his younger years and referred to it in his work.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: "Jesus Christ" depicts Christ as a socialist rebel killed for speaking truth to power (and notably makes no reference to his resurrection). Guthrie also wrote a song called "Christ for President," later recorded by Wilco as part of Mermaid Avenue. President Christ promises "a job and pension for young and old."
  • Location Song: "This Land Is Your Land" was originally a political song that invoked locations in the USA. However, its more often performed now as children's music and has been adapted for other countries.
  • Money Song: "Do Re Mi" is about how Dust Bowl refugees go out to California for new opportunities but find themselves shut out for lack of money (the "do re mi" of the title).
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: "This Land Is Your Land", despite being seen as patriotic anthem was in fact written as a critical response to Irving Berlin's 1938 hit "God Bless America", which Guthrie thought ignored a lot of the problems going on in the country. The song includes lyrics talking about bread lines and class warfare. Then the first three verses were included in a school song book, and it spread as a patriotic ballad as a stealth torpedo, which exploded when Pete Seeger sang all the verses, as Woody wrote them, at Barack Obama's inauguration concert in 2009.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Twice!
    • His first child with his second wife, Cathy Ann, died in 1947 at the age of four in a fire.
    • His third child with his first wife, Bill, died in 1962 at the age of 23 in a car accident.
  • Pep-Talk Song: He believed very much that music should give listeners hope and be uplifting.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: In the late '90s, Billy Bragg and Wilco took some unpublished Guthrie lyrics and set them to music, creating the Mermaid Avenue albums.
  • Protest Song: The majority of Guthrie's songs were left-wing protest songs which sympathized with workers, unions and oppressed people everywhere.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Guthrie's songs reflect the time they were written in. He wrote songs about World War II, the Communist Witch Hunts near the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, the civil rights movements, Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd,... He even wrote a song about the female Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlicenko.
  • Something Blues: "Railroad Blues", "Dust Bowl Blues", "California Blues",...
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Dramatized in the biopic about his life Bound for Glory, after his radio station tries to make him play non-controversial, non-political songs. The fact that it's The Great Depression and the radio job lifted his family out of poverty and got them a house does not bother Woody.
  • The Something Song: "Miner's Song".
  • To the Tune of...: "This Land Is Your Land" is based on the traditional folk song "Oh, My Loving Brother"
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Famously said:
    If you play more than two chords, you're showing off.
  • Train Song: "This Train is Bound for Glory", sung by Woody in the movie, gave the real Woody Guthrie the title of his autobiography, Bound for Glory, and thus gave a title to this film.
  • Wanderlust Song: "Sally, Don't You Grieve".
    I am one of those ramblin' men,
    Ramblin' since I don't know when,
    Here I come and I'm gone again,
    And I told her not to grieve after me.