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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Tomorrow, October 3rd, is the 40th anniversary of the death of Woody Guthrie. He died in Queens, New York, aged 55. Here's the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry on him. (It was only when re-looking at this entry just now that I realised it doesn't follow the book's normal format of starting with the facts of his birth - real full name, place and date of birth - and ending with the date and place of his death. This will need amending for the projected 2008 paperback, of which more in due course...)

[Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1912]:

Guthrie, Woody [1912-1967]
Guthrie travelled around with LEADBELLY, SONNY TERRY and CISCO HOUSTON during the Second World War. Their recordings include a Leadbelly song, ‘We Shall Be Free’, on which Dylan based his own ‘I Shall Be Free’ and ‘I Shall Be Free No.10’. The tune is the same in all three songs, all of which belong to an older song cluster (see ‘I Shall Be Free’) and to the talking-blues genre. This genre is generally acknowledged to have originated (on record, at least) with the white artist Chris Bouchillon but when we attribute Dylan’s talking-blues style to Guthrie we tend to forget that black artists explored this form earlier than Guthrie did, and that Guthrie himself listened attentively to black music. (A particularly fine example is BLIND WILLIE McTELL’s ‘Travelin’ Blues’, recorded in Atlanta on October 30, 1929.)

Dylan’s early work includes a Guthrie Period, of course, and while one of the two self-composed songs on his first album is the direct address ‘Song To Woody’, the other, ‘Talkin’ New York’ also quotes from him, transcribing and reiterating his morality (‘Now a very great man once said / Some people rob you with a fountain pen’, which comes from Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’): a morality that has remained crucial in Dylan’s work ever since. We meet it close to the surface again in the interestingly political 1980s song 'Union Sundown': a genuine protest song in the Guthrie tradition, and a honorable addition to it because it is observant about a reality that wasn’t there to be observed in the 1960s - a real and contemporary ‘state of the union’ survey, and with a title that carries among its many meanings one that echoes a far earlier Dylan sleeve-note poem in its recognition that the Guthrie era of noble, simple pro-union sentiment is no longer an available option.

Guthrie Americanised the ancient ballad ‘Gypsy Davey’ (CHILD ballad no.200), abolishing its ‘milk-white steed’; his was a version Dylan was recorded performing at the home of SID & BOB GLEASON in East Orange NJ, Feb-Mar 1961, and Dylan clearly knew it like the back of his lily-white hand when he was writing his own ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.

Early Dylan can also use the tone of Guthrie’s autobiographical writing unaltered, can capture it exactly, in song. The chaotic scurrying around of cram-jam-packed humanity, which Guthrie describes so well in his tremendous autobiography Bound for Glory (1943), which Dylan is believed to have read in 1958 - particularly in the sequence about the box-car ride that opens and closes the book - is done precisely in this way: ‘Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’ / Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’ / Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’ / Maybe we just better call off the picnic.’ That is Woody Guthrie’s voice. It’s from Dylan’s 1962 song ‘Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues’.

Similarly, a line like ‘In the misty crystal glitter’ (from Guthrie’s song ‘Grand Coulee Dam’) clearly has its influence even on the Dylan of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ - and you need only compare the writing and delivery of Guthrie’s ‘Talking About Songs’ (1944) with particular passages of Dylan’s ‘Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie’ (recorded in ‘live’ recitative performance in 1963 and finally released on the Bootleg Series I-III box-set, 1991) to hear yet another side of Guthrie’s voice: and it’s surprising to find his influence still so strong at this point. Here’s Woody Guthrie: ‘I hate a song that makes you think that you’re just / born to lose - bound to lose - no good to nobody, no / good fer nuthin’ because yer either 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 songs that poke fun at ya on / account of yr bad luck or yer [pause] hard travelin’... / I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is / your world, that if it has hit you pretty hard and / knocked you down for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you / down or rolled you over, no matter what color, what size / y’are, how y’re built...’ and here’s Bob Dylan’s ambiguously titled ‘Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie’: ‘When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb / When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb... You need something to make it known / That it’s you and no one else that owns / That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting / That the world aint got you beat / That it ain’t got you licked / It can’t get you crazy no matter how many times you might get kicked…’

Even Dylan’s 1960s drawings and paintings owe a lot to the quirky pen-and-ink sketches in Guthrie’s Bound For Glory. Look at the sketches published in Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan in 1972 (a book dedicated to ‘the magnificent Woodie [sic] Guthrie and Robert Johnson…’) and the paintings on the covers of Dylan’s album Self Portrait and THE BAND’s first album Music From Big Pink.

Guthrie’s work was not always from that mythical terrain, the pure oral-tradition land of the folk. He seems to have based his rather awful poem ‘Belle Starr’ (in American Folksong, 1947) on the equally awful film Belle Starr (directed Irving Cummings, 20th Century Fox, 1941) - a poem that PETE SEEGER and RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT had no more sense than to put a tune to and record (The Bad Men [sic], Columbia L2L-1011, nia) and to publish in Sing Out! Vol. 15 no. 5, Nov 1965.

Dylan also recorded some of Guthrie’s children’s songs in early 1961, and kept them in his repertoire while he was conquering New York. These included ‘Car Car’ (East Orange NJ, Feb-Mar 1961, BONNIE BEECHER’s Minneapolis apartment that May, and at the Gaslight, NYC, Sep 1961) and ‘Howdido’ (Beecher’s, May 1961). Who knows why? You have never met a child (or adult) who enjoys listening to Guthrie (or Dylan) singing these dreary songs, with their plodding, morose jollity. And since Guthrie spent as little time as possible with his own children, it’s no wonder he misjudged his audience. (His son ARLO GUTHRIE and other relatives have apparently ‘revived’ these songs on a spooky 1990s album that mixes old Woody Guthrie vocal tracks with new recordings.)

In 1987 Dylan said that the first thing that struck him about Guthrie was his sound: not words but his sound - and interestingly, he added that he thought it quite close to THE CARTER FAMILY’s sound. Then Dylan uses the phrase ‘links in a chain’ to describe how people pass on what has gone before to those who come after; this comes in answer to questions about Guthrie’s influence upon him.

Dylan’s first public appearance after the motorcycle crash of 1966 was at the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall. At the afternoon show he and The Band performed vibrant, fresh versions of Guthrie’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt’ and ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, and, with the ensemble of other performers, joined in ‘This Land Is Your Land’. At the evening show Dylan and The Band performed the same three songs and, ensemble, joined in ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’. In 1972 one of Dylan’s many contributions to the DOUG SAHM sessions for the album Doug Sahm & Band was to play piano and organ on their recording of Guthrie’s ‘Columbus Stockade’ - a song Dylan himself first put on extant tape back in St.Paul, Minnesota, in May 1960. And in 1987, for the album A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Dylan contributed a new recording of ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’.

Nowhere in song does Dylan throw us back to Guthrie - to song titles he’s written or performed, and to phrases associated with his work - more than within the multiple allusions, the deep soundings of meaning and memory that boom and rumble beneath the surface of the 1997 album Time Out of Mind.

In prose, Dylan has fully seized the opportunity, in Chronicles Volume One, 2004, to give Guthrie and his impact and influence a truly fulsome amount of careful yet warm attention. Woody is there on pages 9, 63, 83, 98-100, 227, 229, 243, 250, 251, 257, 270 and 283. Being ‘knocked out’ by Woody is on pages 243-246. Visiting his Coney Island house is on p.99-100. His repertoire is discussed on pages 247, 248 and 252. Songs and records by Woody are considered on pages 49, 53-54, 63, 98, 243-244, 246-247 and 279. Bound For Glory is cited on page 245. As ever, Dylan’s observations are as shrewd as they are romantic, as thoughtful as respectful. And the early period in which Dylan more or less tried to become Guthrie, and is tackled on the subject by JON PANKAKE, is candidly discussed.

The great folklorist ALAN LOMAX wrote of Guthrie that ‘he inherited the folk tradition of the last American frontier (western Oklahoma) and during his incessant wandering across the US he has recomposed this tradition into contemporary folky ballads about the lives of the American working class... No modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture.’ Well, except one.

[Woody Guthrie: The Library of Congress Recordings is a 3-CD set, Rounder Reissue Series 1041-1043, 1993, comprising ‘3 hours of songs and conversations’ incl. 22 monologues. For other recording details see Leadbelly: ‘We Shall Be Free’, NYC, May 1944 (with Woody Guthrie & Sonny Terry); Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs, Folkways FA 2488, 1962, CD-reissued as FA 2488, 1995.

Dylan 1987 remarks re Guthrie: Questions from Robert Noakes, aka Rab Noakes, 1970s singer-songwriter turned Scotland-based radio producer; recorded answers sent by Dylan’s office on a 9′ 27″ tape, 8 Jul 1987; parts broadcast in 4-program series Woody Guthrie, BBC Radio, and in A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, CBS-TV, 1987. (The whole tape of Dylan’s answers is in circulation.)

Dylan & The Band: ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’, ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ & ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’ issued Tribute To Woody Guthrie Vol.1, Columbia KC31171, 1972; ‘This Land Is Your Land’ issued Tribute To Woody Guthrie Vol.2, Warner Bros. K46144, 1972. Bob Dylan on Doug Sahm & Band’s ‘Columbus Stockade’, NYC, Oct 1972; unissued until the Doug Sahm limited-edition 2-CD set The Genuine Texas Groover, Rhino Handmade RHM2 7845, US, Nov 2003. Bob Dylan: ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, prob. LA Apr 1987; Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly, Columbia OC 44034, 24 Aug 1988.

The standard biography is Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein (New York: Random House, 1980) but the more recent Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray, 2005, is also absorbing. There is too a collection of other Guthrie writing, Born to Win, edited by ROBERT SHELTON (1965). But above all towers the autobiography, Bound for Glory: a great book, written when its author was 30. Dylan’s copy was the 1st edition paperback, 1949.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are amending the Guthrie entry in the Encyclopedia it might be worth mentioning that Dylan's first Theme Time show took the same subject "Weather" as Woody's radio show which had a themed format too.

8:28 pm  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...


i have always thought there are some oddities in the entry.

The first is the fact that there is no mention of Woody's early life or of his travels around America during the depression here. His politics also (surely a crucial part of any assessment of him as an artist) are barely touched on here.

The second is that I find it hard to believe that Guthrie spent a great deal of time 'travelling around' [where?] during the Second World war with either Sonny Terry or Leadbelly

According to Ed Cray's book he only met Terry for the first time in mid -1942 before enlisting in the merchant navy (with Cisco Huston & Jim Longhi) in mid-43.

There is no reference there to any travelling around with Leadbelly or Sonny Terry during the war years although both of them did record with Woody in New York.

His friendship with Leadbelly was also, at least according to Cray, largely New York based.

He did travel around with Cisco Huston and with the Almanacs, but his great rambling days were surely prior to 1939.

4:59 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

This is from site:

Woody Guthrie performed for the NY Public Libraries Employees Union
Check out this flyer announcing a show that Woody Guthrie & His Headline Singers (Leadbelly, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry) performed for the New York Public Libraries Employees Union in 1943. The first and only known documented performance from Woody Guthrie & His Headline Singers.

March 5, 1943. Concert Programs.
Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

1:29 am  

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