It is time to pause and celebrate the improbable, wonderful life and career of Woody Guthrie, born a century ago today. Could such a voice of ordinary people ever make it as a songwriter/performer today? It’s remarkable how the “Oklahoma cowboy” drew together the strands of American folk music, hillbilly lyrics, cowboy songs and countless other regional influences to create songs that sound as if they had existed from time immemorial. In a way, they had. He was often renovating folk tunes that had already endured for generations and giving them more timely, politically inflected lyrics: derivation as original creativity. He sang about dignity and social justice; he sang about hard personal truths and political struggle.
Guthrie himself said, “A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be who’s hungry and where their mouth is or who’s out of work and where the job is or who’s broke and where the money is or who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.” In today’s media-saturated world, in which posturing and PR optics drive talent to become facsimiles of the authentic (but never the real thing, lest it be caught by surprise in an unflattering light being all-too-human), Guthrie was the unvarnished, plain-spoken real thing.
Out of that stubborn authenticity came a raw eloquence that could not be suppressed. When Irving Berlin wrote the sanctimonious “God Bless America,” which went on to become a hit, especially as sung by pious conservatives like Kate Smith, Guthrie set out to write a song that would not be so darn complacent about America.
His answer was “This Land Is Your Land,” which arguably is the real anthem of Americans outside of Republican convention halls. The tune is irresistible, and the lyrics make the 1% choke. There’s that famous stanza that rarely gets sung in public, but which is one of the most subversive lines in the American songbook:
As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." But on the other side it didn't say nothing, That side was made for you and me.
I remember when Pete Seeger, a long-time friend and collaborator of Guthrie’s, sang those lines on the Mall in Washington, D.C., at a concert attended by the newly elected President Barack Obama. I watched for the camera cutaways to see if Obama would applaud, give a faint smile, or simply ignore it. The camera never cut away, but we know from his handling of the banking scandals which side of the sign he prefers to read.
When I visited the official website for Woody Guthrie, I was surprised to see that most (all?) of Guthrie’s songs are still being licensed for use by BMI, the licensing body (like ASCAP and Sesac) that so many artists love to hate. The website notes, “Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. owns copyright on ALL text written by Woody Guthrie.” I regard this as a sign with the words, “No Trespassing.”
This strikes me as a bit of cognitive dissonance. Or if not, I’d like to know the full story behind the copyrights to Guthrie’s songs, and to what use that revenue is now being put. Can anyone help me (and my readers) out on this?
Guthrie and his estate are fully entitled to copyright their songs; I don’t begrudge him and his heirs the rewards from his brilliance and social commitment, especially given his own itinerant, difficult life. But Woody made it clear in a songbook distributed in the late 1930s to the listeners of his Los Angeles radio show, “Woody and Lefty Lou,” how he felt about his songs and lyrics. He wrote: “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
So what happened to the rights to that song after 28 years, then the term of government-granted monopoly rights that Guthrie had expected? Was this notice in his songbook a pure bit of whimsy, not to be taken seriously? Or did his heirs step in and assert control? I’d be curious to know if Woody would have used Creative Commons licenses if they had existed in his day (and which one?). I tend to think so.
The whole issue of "ownership of folk music" reminds me of the time I attended a small conference of folk singers organized by Pete Seeger about seven or eight years ago. It was specifically focused on the concerns of folk singers and copyright protection in the age of the Internet. I was surprised, even shocked, to learn that this was an ardent community of zealous proprietarians. Despite the folk origins of the music they sang – a gift from earlier generations of anonymous folk artists – these performers were as possessive of their copyrights as any smartly coiffed, Brooks Brothers-attired executive of the recording industry.
(Seeger himself, I hasten to add, has been exceedingly mindful of these tensions, most notably in his initiative to ensure that the rights to "We Shall Overcome," would benefit social movements, and in the controversy surrounding the song "Wemowah," or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which originated from folk circles in South Africa. Seeger also (full disclosure) generously gave me a blurb for my book, Brand Name Bullies, a collection of stories about copyright and trademark excesses.)
I understand why folk singers might cling to their copyrights. Unlike RIAA executives, folk singers tend to have few sources of income other than their performing talent and fickle audiences; copyright has historically been the most convenient means to earn a livelihood. And folk singers don't usually drive around in Cadillacs.
Still, I wonder what Woody would say. Does this song belong to you and me? Or will it be locked up until 2037 (which is when, I presume, that Guthrie's copyrights will expire, 70 years after his death)?
I must confess my own creative debt to Woody Guthrie, both in the inspiration that I have taken from his songs about the wealth that we the people share, but also in the title of his song that the Media Education Foundation and I adapted for the title of our film about the commons, “This Land Is Our Land.”
May the music and memory of Woody Guthrie reverberate through the ages. With vigor, passion and poignant emotion, his music expresses some feelings that don’t get much exposure, let alone celebration, these days. Here are some websites for doing your own explorations about Guthrie: