05 December 2006
The Essential Albums: Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads
At the start of Bob Dylan’s career, he looked, sounded and played like Woody Guthrie. Fact is, nobody ever made Pete Seeger madder than Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Many argue, whatever the reasons for Seeger’s reaction, that Dylan’s going electric was part of his way of saying to the early ’60’s folk movement that he wasn’t going to be their new Woody Guthrie.
Woody was one of a number of artists, John Steinbeck his only equal, who set upon the task of both describing the Depression and also doing something about it. Indeed, when Guthrie saw John Ford’s film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he was so moved he promptly went home and dashed off a two part single, “Tom Joad”, that Steinbeck felt captured his entire manuscript in a 7 minute song.
More recently, discussing Guthrie’s best work, as Bruce Springteen put it, nobody knows how to write songs like that anymore.
Guthrie was a product of a shattered childhood and of the road, describing the America he saw as no other did. This 1940 album, his best, focuses on the Dustbowl, with a glorified outlaw or two thrown in.
When Bono sings “all I’ve got is four chords and the truth”, he’s not talking about U2; he’s demystifying Dylan emulating Guthrie. Any singer/songwriter who may be said to have spoken for his or her generation must emulate Woody Guthrie — that’s why Dylan tried, Springsteen tries, Bono can only fail because he compromises to get things done, and many others try.
I even play one of Woody’s songs (from this album), “Pretty Boy Floyd”. After discarding traditional history for, what was more real to his audience, myth and legend, Guthrie made a sinner a saint (tip a de ole hat, Mick) and closed the song with:
As through this world I’ve travelled, I’ve met lots of funny men Some will rob you with a six-gun Some with a fountain pen As through this world I travel, As through this world I roam I ain’t ever seen an outlaw, Drive a family from their home.
Where Woody does not discard traditional history is in his graphic description of North America’s Depression era Dust Bowl, a man-made natural disaster that ravaged the prairie east of the Rocky Mountains from Texas to southern Canada. Sure, I can go to the library or Wikipedia and learn about the Dust Bowl, but I won’t play and replay the raw facts except as presented by Woody.
Guthrie took tragedy and made it art. Combining varying currents of social activism, humor, and gut-level reality (taken in stride), Guthrie delivers simple masterpieces. He used admittedly borrowed melodies as his canvas and deceptively simply lyrics as his brush strokes:
… Boy, ’twas black as night in that little ol’ Oklahoma shack… it was so dark the electric light looked like a cigarette butt… an’ the wind a-shakin’ the house until we thought she’s a-comin’ down any minute… We sat there in the front room together with the kids on the bed… we didn’t say a word for a long time… then Pa said So long, it’s been good to know yuh, So long, it’s been good to know yuh, So long, it’s been good to know yuh, This dusty ol’ dust is a-gettin’ my home, An’ I’ve got to be driftin’ along. …. Well, we all went on down to the church t’ see each other for the last time, we thought… lemme tell you what happened… I’ll just tell it my own way here… The church was jammed, and the church was packed, An’ the dusty old dust storm blowed so black Preacher could not read a word of his text, An’ he folded his specs, an’ he took up collection, Said: So long, it’s been good to know yuh, So long, it’s been good to know yuh, So long, it’s been good to know yuh, This dusty ol’ dust is a-gettin’ my home, An’ I’ve got to be driftin’ along. (from Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh))
If you want add an invaluable, and often humorous, perspective to what you know about Depression-era North America, get yourself a copy of Dust Bowl Ballads. And drop the “do re mi” to buy the CD; the foundation that owns the rights to Woody’s songs takes good care of their cut.