Week 2 of 7
 Woody Guthrie


On Sunday night (1/16), Steve Earle did a fiction and poetry reading at Old Town as part of the effort to enact a moratorium for the death penalty in Illinois.  Steve is very stridently anti-death penalty, but he mentioned that the effort has supporters on both sides of the death penalty issue.  Currently, over 50% of the people on death row in Illinois have been cleared and spared the death penalty.  In other words, the State admits that every other prisoner it is prepared to execute doesn't deserve it.  The system needs to be fixed and Steve is part of the effort to call a halt in executions until the flaws in the justice system can be addressed.

The concert started with Chicago poet Tony Fitzpatrick performed some gripping readings of his work backed by Jon Langford and another Waco brother.  Jon Langford adding Isaac Hayes Shaft- like guitar behind Tony Fitzpatrick jabbing out a poem about Sonny Liston was worth the price alone.  The Wacos kicked out a cool acoustic set.  For a closer, Steve performed a couple acoustic numbers with his son Justin, including a cool duet on Mance Lipscomb's "So Different Blues".

This week's topic is Woody Guthrie.  I'm hoping for some more insight into Guthrie and a mention of the Wilco/Billy Bragg efforts to retool abandoned lyrics into modern material.  Before class, I see Steve carrying a new banjo out of the Different Strummer music store.  Later, he will say he got it for himself for his birthday yesterday (1/17/55).  In a newspaper article later, I heard that they had a big cake for him in last night's class.

Steve is standing in front of the class wearing a black Beatles t-shirt with an aqua long sleeve shirt underneath.  It's mid- January in Chicago and it's cold.  He's taking a pull off a big cup of coffee ("Christian crack") waiting for the class to start.

Steve says coffee is the only vice he has left (although he can be seen puffing a pipe outside the school from time to time) and asks if Old Town is going to stop selling coffee when the Starbucks under construction across the street opens.  He comments on recent demonstrations in Seattle that happened while he was on the west coast.  He talked to people involved and everything was going smoothly until some kids crashed in the window of a Starbucks ("which may be a capital crime in Seattle, but...").  Police were pushing the kids for the benefit of the TV cameras because they didn't know how to handle such a large protest.  "It hasn't happened in a long time.  We've all been (complacent) and...going to Starbucks".

A local film crew is setting up and tonight's class will be filmed and shown on PBS a few weeks later. If you look closely, you can see me on the right hand side of the screen in a couple shots.

Steve breathes out and says, "Now that I've reached my target heart rate...."


Steve credits Woody Guthrie for inventing his job.  Woody was an entertainer and  had radio shows on commercial radio stations.  Woody was a natural storyteller and song writer, and if he had been raised in a different part of the nation, he may have turned out to be a different brand of writer.

Woody (Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) was born in Oklahoma.  Oklahoma was land promised to Indian tribes relocated from the eastern United States; Plains Indians were pushed there too.  The native Plains Indians had little impact on their environment; however, as Americans pushed West and saw the flat land and grass, they decided it would be easy to plow and plant.  The Plains became crowded and land was sold to people desperate to relocate.  Americans tried to farm the land and caused so much damage in the years 1890 - 1920 that all the topsoil blew away.  This was known as the Dust Bowl and it instigated a major migration to other parts of the country, especially the central valleys of California.

Woody began working, but would come back and re- enroll in High School so he could finish his education.  Woody performed a variety of jobs.  In the Moses Asch liner notes, Woody writes: "...I had to hit the road in 1927 when I was about 15 years old.  I rambled around for a good long time, down to east Texas, and along the Gulf of Mexico, and then across Texas again - up to the big oil country, the big cattle country.  but ever so often, I 'd find myself a driftin back down the draw to Oklahoma, and when I'd get back there I couldn't make a livin, so I'd haf to take off again-just anywhere."

Because of the time and social situations, he changed from an entertainer to a political singer.  Steve relays one of his favorite Woody quotes: "I won't say that I'm a Communist, but I have been in the red all my life."  At one time, Woody was a member of the Communist party, as was Pete Seeger.  They were members of Almanac House, a commune of political people with ties to folk music. The primary concern among these young politicized people was the spread of Fascism in Europe several years before the United States entered the war. Woody had a Gibson SJ with the words "This machine kills Fascists" written on it.  Woody started recording about 1940 for Alan Lomax for the Smithsonian, then within a few months cut tracks for Moses Asch and Folkways.  Steve highlights some tracks.

Lindbergh - 1942

The first track that Steve presents is "Lindbergh".Charles Lindbergh made a trip to Europe and went to the White House to lobby for the Germans to encourage isolationism and keep the U.S. out of the war.  Steve claims this was for financial reasons and pressure from German companies who offered him endorsements ("Nike syndrome").  The lyrics criticize Lindbergh's politics and claim that the U.S. had advanced knowledge of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Guthrie calls out to workers, "I'm gonna tell you workers/ before you cash in your checks/they say America First/but they mean America next."

The song has the exact melody of a song on the Harry Smith Anthology, "White House Blues" by Charlie Poole and his N.C. Ramblers. (Side bar: The song lists a Tom Ashley as a player; this is actually Clarence Ashley.  In the 60s, Clarence invited some neighbors over and one of them was Doc Watson who was in his late 20s at the time.  They got to discussing the song "Tom Dooley" and Doc said they left out all the good verses (the grisly verses).  This changes the interpretation of the song.  Without them you feel sorry for Tom Dooley.  With them, you realize he's committed a  heinous crime.)

This was a commercially available record (1922) and Woody could have heard it on the radio.  It is more likely that Woody heard it from the same sources as Harry Smith since they ran in the same musical circles.

Jesus Christ-1940

In the Asch Recording liner notes it says : "I wrote this song looking out of a rooming house window in New York City in the winter of 1940. I saw how the poor folks lived, and then I saw how the rich folks lived, and the poor folks down and out and cold and hungry...and I got to thinking about what Jesus said, and what if He was to walk into New York City and preach like he used to,they'd lock Him back in jail as sure as you're reading this."

The song cops the melody from "Jesse James"- a song that exists all over the USA, mostly west of the Mississippi.  Steve plays an Alan Lomax field recording of Almeda Riddle singing "Jesse James." It's interesting to see the same melody for an American gangster and Jesus. Then Steve plays a Leadbelly version of "Jesse James".  Steve comments that Woody and Leadbelly were contemporaries and even toured together.  Steve goes into a long story about Leadbelly and says that one of the obstacles you run into when doing research is that the legend gets in the way of finding the facts.  Steve claims, "There are stories floating around about me that are absolutely fiction - and I started some of 'em!"

When That Great Ship Went Down - 1942

Steve says he's heard this next song all his life, and he's heard many bluegrass versions.  "Nowhere in any of them does it say anything about Leonardo DiCaprio - isn't it strange." This song tells the story of the Titanic sinking in 1912.  The Asch notes claim over 125 songs about the disaster were copyrighted within a year of the disaster.  The tune is a chugging, hillbilly version.  But Steve plays "Titanic" (aka "When that Great Ship Went Down") by William and Versey Smith off the Anthology.  It is rousing and gospel flavored, a very different take on the material.  Steve says, " That recording right there is worth the price of the box." He claims it's his favorite track on the box.   Woody was getting better at stealing and made their refrain into his whole song.

Steve takes a step back and says next week we will talk about Dylan and explore how Bob lifted from Woody.  Dylan emulated Woody for the first three records, then suddenly found his unique voice.

Grand Coulee Dam - 1945

This song takes the song "The Wabash Cannonball" and adapts it to another modern wonder, the Grand Coulee Dam.  Woody was smart enough to realize "Roy Acuff did not right the fucking 'Wabash Cannonball' ". But he found it and copyrighted it first and started a publishing empire which included Hank Williams.  Acuff -Rose was built on hundreds of Public Domain songs.  Woody definitely knew Roy Acuff and "The Wabash Cannonball", so he changed the song enough to get him out of the woods.  Rules were less stringent then.

This type of lifting was common practice at the time. Steve was at Del McCoury's house a couple Christmases ago and Earl Scruggs dropped by.  They told a story about a man who used to travel and sell songs for $50 in the early days.  Hank Williams and Bill Monroe bought songs, even though they were prolific writers.  Steve's theory is that this is because Bluegrass playing is so demanding that it leaves little time to write.  He claims he's a bad guitar player because he started writing songs when he was 13.  His playing is getting a little better in recent years because the writing is coming easier.

There are very few undiscovered songs out there because communication is more sophisticated and we can all make records today.  Next week we'll talk about Dylan and take material back through Woody and back to the box.

Steve ends the class, but the film crew has left and he has to wait for them to come back.  So he talks a bit about other commercial songwriters (pop song writers) : A.P. Carter and the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Emmett Miller. Miller was a white man imitating minstrels and black singers; the Dorsey brothers were in his band.  Miller wrote "Lovesick Blues" which Hank Williams later covered and Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills were all big fans.  Steve says when you listen to Miller you can hear where almost every pop song and country stylist got their style. "You'll be shocked."   The voice breaking that Hank Williams did on "Lovesick Blues" is taken more from Emmett Miller than Jimmie Rodgers; Steve thinks Miller is trying to make his voice sound like a muted trumpet.

The film crew comes back in, so class is officially over. I head off for guitar class.  Two hours later, I'm heading home and I see Steve practicing the banjo in the lobby.  I smile, lug my guitar,  and head out in the cold, eager for next week.

Reading List
Bound For Glory - Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie - A Life - Joe Klein

Woody Guthrie - This Land is Your Land - The Asch Recordings
Bad Man Ballads - The Lomax Series - Rounder Records
Blind Lemon Jefferson - King of the Country Blues - Yazoo Records

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