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.