July 14 is traditionally seen as a good day for the left. It's celebrated each year in France for the storming of the Bastille. It's also the birthday of Woody Guthrie, and this year is his centenary. Woody is often namechecked in musical and political circles, but what do we actually understand as having gained from him, and what was his lasting legacy as a cultural and political figure?
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. The third child of a musical and moderately wealthy family, Woody initially lived a very comfortable life, but a slew of tragedies and bad luck brought them hard times, and by his late teens he was on his own and penniless. Although he married and had children, he was restless and wandering the roads. During the Depression, when catastrophic dust storms further decimated the livelihoods of many poor farmers in Oklahoma and other "Dust Bowl" states, countless families were travelling the country, driven away from their homes by the dust or repossession. Woody began writing songs about them, to reflect on the injustice of their situation and offer them validation and solidarity - and through this, he developed clearer and stronger left-wing views.
This led to contact with left-wing activists and intellectuals, a number of whom had begun collecting and composing folk-style songs to promote their cause. There followed radio contracts, and critical (if not commercial) success in the 1940s as a recording artist and writer.
Yet despite this apparent upward trajectory, Woody's life was always fraught and unstable. He could be thoughtless and antagonistic even to those closest to him, constantly alienating colleagues and destroying opportunities for success. He married a total of three times and had eight children, but he still felt the need to just take off for weeks at a stretch, travelling the country by foot or jumping boxcars, just as he had done in his youth.
Eventually, after years of disruptive and chaotic behaviour, it became apparent that he was suffering from Huntingdon's disease, a hereditary degenerative brain condition which had also killed his mother. Essentially unable to work from the early 1950s, he was hospitalised from the middle of the decade, and, under the care of friends and family, became increasingly unable to control the motion of his body or to communicate. He died in Creedmor State Hospital in Queens on October 3, 1967.
A place in mythology
What was his legacy? It has often been said - and I've repeated it as much as anyone - that Woody was the first protest singer. This is too simplistic - people have forever sung songs about things that strike them as oppressive or unjust, and lots of people were composing folky-style protest songs when Woody first came to national prominence. He has, however, come to define the image of the lone figure decrying society's injustices, with guitar in hand and a harmonica round the neck - and it seems this archetype was created in his image.
To an extent, this is matter of mythology, and how the past is remembered and represented. To start at something close to the beginning: in the late 1940s and 1950s, in both the US and Europe, the generations that had lived through the bleak uncertainty of the late Edwardian period, the World Wars, and the poverty of the 1930s, sought desperately to establish a stability and "normality" in their lives. In doing so, they imposed a conformity and conservatism that harked back to an idealised past that had never really existed: certainly they and their parents had been too poor to enjoy the ideal of the paternalistic breadwinner, domestic goddess and children safely provided with infinite material comfort. Their children, however, found this conformity stale and stifling.
As folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips put it: "Instead of anxiety in the face of uncertainty, they faced frustration in the face of certainty." It was these young people to whom rock 'n' roll and teen culture promised freedom, adventure and self-expression.
In both the USA and the UK, the folk scene inherited a Communist interest in "folk culture" as the true expression of the workers, and so mostly rejected all pop music as a corporate product of capitalist exploitation and control. And as rock 'n' roll did indeed become more slick and tamed as the 1950s progressed, folk music represented to some an even more radical alternative for freedom. Joe Klein, Woody's first biographer, reveals clearly that for these kids discovering an identity through folk for the first time, it was a myth of Woody's life - his defiant unconventionality and long aimless rambling - that spurred their interest.
Klein recounts how Lee Hays, an old friend and colleague of Woody's, found that, of all the comrades he could reminisce about to this new community (many of them at least as talented and memorable), it was only Woody they wanted to hear about. A waiter he met summed it up: "Most kids reach a point where they really want their freedom. You hate school, your parents - anything that stands in the way. All you can think about is getting out. You want to hitch a ride, hop a freight, go wherever you want. Woody, I guess, represents that kind of freedom to me." And these kids were able to sing his songs, affect his appearance, and tell their own mythologised stories about his life:
"He was a rich rancher’s son who ran away."
"He sailed a boat to Alaska."
"He killed a man."
He died of syphilis."
"He's still out there somewhere, riding the boxcars."
Pete Seeger, a close friend of Woody's, seems to have helped this along. Blacklisted in the McCarthy era, he was unable to get many gigs except on university campuses, but he encouraged students "to get involved politically and musically" and would tell them about his old friend Woody, "the best songwriter I'd ever met", and sing his songs.
A lasting legacy
It also helped that Woody came to settle in a hospital in New Jersey, and at weekends would go and stay with local residents Bob and Sid Gleason - there the New York folk community could visit him, and many of the young, new mainstays of the Greenwich Village folk revival would come to absorb what lessons they could from the presence of their hero. It was these musicians who would define the philosophy and sound of the scene which gave rise to such stars as Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Peter, Paul and Mary, Phil Ochs - and a certain Robert Zimmerman, already calling himself Bob Dylan.
Woody's songs featured in the repertoires of almost all them, and it is not overstating the case to say that, to some extent, they all modelled themselves as performers on him. He had become the template for what a generation came to understand as "the protest singer".
This interest in Woody as a mythological figure would have meant a lot less, however, had his material not been of such high quality. He was a startlingly gifted writer, writing lyrics and prose of deceptive simplicity that carry a huge emotional impact, and which convey evocative images and a wide range of different meanings all at once - happy, tragic, angry, funny, savage satire and poignant fragility.
In Seeger's oft-quoted observation, any idiot can be complicated. It takes a genius to be simple.
There is a depth that comes from conveying a range of lived experience. This is not a criticism, but when other left-wing singers of the time wrote songs in the folk style (however good the songs were) one could get the sense that they started with an intellectual, theoretical idea, and then built the song around it - for example, Pete Seeger:
"What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers never die.
I learned that everybody's free,
And that's what the teacher said to me.
That's what I learned in school today,
That's what I learned in school."
Woody's ideas, on the other hand, came mostly from an emotional response to the things he'd seen. He was politicised by the experience of Okie migrant workers in California, but his philosophy may well have begun a lot earlier - it is clear from his autobiographical writings that he felt much of the trauma and suffering of his early life came from his father's chasing of money and social standing. For example, when talking about Okemah’s oil boom:
"…oil slickers, oil fakers, oil stakers, and oil takers. Papa met them. He stood up and swapped and traded, bought and sold, got bigger spread out, and made more money… Almost every day when Papa rode home he showed signs and bruises of a new fist fight, and Mama seemed to get quieter than any of us had ever seen her. She laid in the bedroom and I watched her cry on her pillow.
"And all of this had give us our nice seven-room house."
It is easy to see how this might have led to his almost pathological rejection as an adult of materialism and the acquisition of wealth, even when he had a family to support - Klein tells that when the dust hit:
"Everyone seemed to be suffering in some way. Except Woody … Here was a guy who had the talent to do virtually anything… but ignored - scorned - all his opportunities. Most of his friends were locked into markets and hardware stores or brutal factory work, jobs with no future. He was still hanging out at Shorty's several afternoons a week, a 23-year-old soda jerk, and it just wasn't funny anymore. Not only that, but he didn't seem to care much about money when he had it … [His first wife] Mary never saw much of it. Woody was as likely to leave it on the table in the Tokyo Bar, or give it to some old guy lying in the gutter, as bring it home."
Woody showed this same tendency all his life. However, this experience of the harsher realities of life, at least as much as a later intellectual awareness, shaped his songs. For example, in Hard Travelin’, he made a point about the experience of migrant workers - not by describing the socio-economic relations they were subject to, but simply by illustrating this life:
"I've been hittin' some hard harvestin', I thought you knowed
North Dakota to Kansas City, way down the road
Cuttin' that wheat, stackin' that hay, and I'm tryin' make about a dollar a day
And I've been havin' some hard travelin', Lord…"
He also had an utter faith that singing songs about things would change them - painting "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. He could be doctrinaire and simplistic at times - he saw things in a very black-and-white, them-and-us way; but this total conviction in the nature of the struggle, and in the strength of singing songs, was perhaps more strictly adhered to by Woody than by any of his contemporaries, and has been an inspiration to successive generations - and that's not a bad thing.
I hate a song that makes you think that you
are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good
to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you
are too old or too young or too fat or too slim
or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that
run you down or poke fun at you on account
of your bad luck or hard travelling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last
breath of air and my last drop of blood. 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 colour, 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. And the songs that I sing
are made up for the most part by all sorts
of folks just about like you.
I could hire out to the other side, the big
money side, and get several dollars every
week just to quit singing my own kind of songs
and to sing the kind that knock you down still
farther and the ones that poke fun at you
even more and the ones that make you think
that you've not got any sense at all. But I
decided a long time ago that I'd starve to
death before I'd sing any such songs as that.
The radio waves and your movies and your
jukeboxes and your songbooks are already
loaded down and running over with such no
good songs as that anyhow.
- Woody Guthrie
Similarly, Woody always showed a fiery individualism in his songs - they are often not broad statements of the facts of a situation, but carry a strong sense of: "I see what's happening, I think this about it, this is my idea, my feelings, my expression of my place in the world." This might not sound so unusual now, but it was different from the others writing songs at the time, either in "folk" or pop music.
He wrote personal songs too, with the same depth and individualism and view of the world as his political output - writing within the style of his alternative musical form, but expressing poetically the realities and contradictions of life and the human condition in an original and contemporary way. It's tempting to say that in this, and in his good-and-bad conviction that singing would make the world better, his songs are more similar to rock music than to his contemporaries. This is not to say that he was ahead of his time, but more that rock music was also shaped, to an extent, in Woody's image.
Dylan worshipped Woody. He was yet another of those kids who dreamed of a life of rock 'n' roll, then turned to folk as a more authentic experience of liberty. He listened to Woody's records endlessly, read his autobiography in a day and quoted it to friends for weeks afterwards. Biographer Anthony Scaduto tells how, when his friends teased him at a party, saying, "Woody's here. He's outside and he wants to see you," Dylan ran out in the snow, shouting: "Woody, where are you?" - knowing well that his hero would not be waiting, but wanting desperately for his hopes to be true.
And more than most performers of his generation, Dylan began to adopt Woody's style of dress, hairstyle, pose on stage, singing - and songwriting - although Nora Guthrie, one of Woody's daughters, was reportedly upset at how Dylan was, in his slurred delivery and harsh nasal whine, imitating not Woody himself, but the effects Huntingdon's had upon him.
Yet Dylan's simple, multi-dimensioned humour, his dry, subtle anger, defiant individualism and potential to write poetically and meaningfully about personal matters in the same voice as political issues - all show Woody's influence. It's been said that Dylan's debt was so great that it is hard to distinguish Dylan's own musical legacy from Guthrie's via the conduit Dylan provided.
It has also been said that when Dylan went electric, he brought into pop music a depth and intelligence and a potential for meaning and serious art that had never been anticipated - most pop singles, whatever their vitality and expressiveness, had still been two-and-a-half-minute ditties about high life or low dealings, but now we had the likes of Like a Rolling Stone, over six minutes of strident musical backing and verse after verse of surreal lyricism, scathing vitriol, social observation and bruised, dignified humanity. In this sense, Dylan in part turned pop into rock; and when he did so, it was Woody's influence he was bringing onto the centre stage of popular music.
This is quite a startling idea, and I'm surprised to have come to it myself - but I think it might be true: there is a significant amount of Woody Guthrie in how rock music was made. Certainly, through his influence on 1960s folk musicians, and their cross-fertilisation with rock music as the decade went on, there is something of Woody in every musician who has since taken the path of the lone, individualistic commentator telling the truth that the powers that be don't want you to hear, using music as a weapon for social change – genuine and insincere, from Rage Against the Machine to Bono. John Mellor even asked friends to call him Woody before taking the name Joe Strummer.
In any case, thanks to the ideals he stood for and the wonder of his work, Woody's memory and songs have been remembered and celebrated in the fields of folk music and political song ever since the 1960s, perpetuating his influence on successive generations. There's cause for celebration on July 14 - dig out your oldest, most favourite records, search your MP3 libraries for songs of significance or open a new browser tab and search for Woody Guthrie - or any of the greats (contemporary or otherwise) who have followed in his footsteps: Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg & Wilco, Anne Feeney, Tracey Curtis, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Alun Parry, David Rovics, Rage Against The Machine, The Ruby Kid, Al Baker & the Dole Queue, Joan Baez, The Clash, Leon Rossellson, Robb Johnson or Bruce Springsteen.
Go on, enjoy yourself. Or as Woody always said: "Take it easy. But take it."
Jonathan Mason is a post-graduate student of social and folk history at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. He also strums guitar, sings and makes other noise as part of the Brighton-based Bandana Collective.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.