If you grew up next to an open stretch of field, chances are there’s a part of your heart that automatically gets Woody Guthrie’s music. When I put on a song like “Hard Travelin’,” for instance, and hear the warm finger-pickin’ style Guthrie learned from Lead Belly, the nasally and laid-back talk-singing style he learned from the old men playing folk songs on his porch in Oklahoma, the workmanlike poetry of phrases like “Hammer flyin’, air-hose suckin’, six foot of mud and I shore been a muckin’,” all the big box stores and glass buildings start to disappear, the creek runs clear, my upper lip stiffens, my eyes squint, my fingers drum the steering wheel of the Chevy truck I don’t have, and I slip back into a place and time I never lived in, but one that feels like home.
This is a special trick of folk music, a communal genre buoyed by ancient ballads and borrowed tunes. Musicians add stanzas of their own along the way, and thus the pickin’ and a-singin’ carries on unto eternity.
Automatic affection for this kind of music is obviously all wrapped up in race, class, geography, and personal mythology, but even if you’re not a working poor white person from the middle of the country, there’s not much not to get about Guthrie. He’s a ramblin’ Okie from Okema who championed the concerns of the working man and who tried to kill fascists with his guitar. He wrote the lefty little brother of the national anthem, “This Land Is Your Land,” despite the fact that everyone thinks it was George Washington.
Though we often associate Guthrie’s music with Appalachia and the Great Plains region of the Midwest, did you know that Woody Guthrie, the father of the first wave of the folk revival in the United States, spent some time pickin’ and a-singin’ right here in the Pacific Northwest?
That’s the gist (and vibe) of Greg Vandy and Daniel Person’s breezy history of Guthrie’s time here, 26 Songs in 30 Days. Primary documents include photos of the era and its major figures, as well as facsimiles of crumpled, dust-stained pages of song lyrics written longhand and/or typed by Guthrie. The authors offer a serviceably written bio of Guthrie’s whole life, but they spend most of their time telling the story of the Okie’s work for the Bonneville Power Administration.
Though Vandy and Person’s language never quite does justice to the events they describe, Guthrie’s story on these shores is a fascinating one, and much of it is interesting to consider in the light of the rise of Trump.
Long story short: In 1941 Guthrie was recommended for a job promoting the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, a massive public works project that promised cheap, publicly owned electricity and also irrigation to a bunch of desert lands in the area.
Guthrie had to write a song a day. He had no money and a family to feed, plus the government’s pro-worker/pro-farmer ideology aligned with his, so he took the job and wrote the songs. He trucked around the roads from Spokane to Wenatchee to Portland Town and up to Seattle, writing about the potential of the Columbia River to save migrant workers dispossessed by the Great Depression and its attendant Dust Bowl, both man-made events, Vandy and Person are quick to point out. The songs he wrote during this, the most productive time of his career, would eventually be gathered and pressed onto an album called the Columbia River Ballads.
26 Songs is a pretty balanced portrayal of the Grand Coulee Dam project and its bard. Vandy and Person are careful to note the Ceremony of Tears, a demonstration against the dam by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, who had lived and fished along the river for thousand of years. The construction of the dam would destroy their land and entirely disrupt the salmon run. The authors also spend a chapter on the history of art commissioned by the government during this time, raising questions about Guthrie’s songs functioning merely as propaganda. As for Guthrie, the person, the authors don’t hide the fact that he wasn’t the best husband, a fact you might pick up on when you hear the song, “It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song.”
In all cases, Vandy and Person try to see those foibles with a generous eye. They point out that Guthrie removed from his ballads all lyrics that celebrated war victory over the Naive Americans. He was already writing political songs, so what if the government was paying for them? At least someone was. As for his personal relationships with others—he had it hard growing up. His sister caught on fire and died. Mom died youngish of Hodgkin’s disease–related mental instability. Family was dirt poor after his father lost all his money in the Depression.
But, so, were the songs he wrote here any good, even for government work? Vandy and Person seem to think so, but they don’t really get academic or critical about it, which is outside the ambition of their book anyway. However, some music criticism might have bolstered Vandy and Person’s character-saving throws. Instead of relying the facts of Guthrie’s biography to re-contextualize flaws, they could have just looked to the music.
Take the issue of the Columbia River ballads serving only as rank propaganda for the State and its acronyms. Can those songs be called art if they’re written first for a government to give to its people? If that government is elected by the people, maybe? Plus the songs arguably aren’t 100 percent pro government.
Consider “Pastures of Plenty,” one of the most popular songs on the record. That song’s a worker’s lament about Uncle Sam plying migrant workers with the promise of plentiful pastures but then denying them the fruits of their labor, and it’s set to the tune of "Pretty Polly,” a murder ballad about a ship’s carpenter who plies Polly with the promise of marriage but then kills her once she gets pregnant. This criticism embedded in the sonic skeleton of “Pastures of Plenty” is pretty powerful and nuanced, and suggests that Guthrie wasn’t phoning these songs in or working necessarily to please the Man.
And some the songs don’t have anything to do with rivers or the dam, like the few I mentioned earlier: “Hard Travelin’” (if you listen to this song, you will have the phrase “I thought you know’d” stuck in your head for 1.5 days), and “It Takes a Worried Man,” whose tune is dark, shifty, and unsettling.
Knowing the story behind these songs enriches them, but the real value and enjoyment of 26 Songs is the surprisingly relevant connections between past and present political issues it offers you to make through the lens of Guthrie’s music. While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about the ways FDR mobilized the working poor after the Great Depression, the ways Obama tried to do the same after the recession (can you imagine Obama commissioning Kanye to do an album about the benefits of solar power?), and the ways Trump is seeking to do the same but to meet purely cynical ends.
Speaking of Trump, “This Land Is Your Land” originally contained the lyrics, “There was a big high wall there/ that tried to stop me./ The sign was painted,/ said ‘Private Property.’/ But on the backside,/ it didn’t say nothing./ This land was made for you and me.” This flash of the ghost of future Trump comes from a man who actually lived in a public housing project owned and operated by Fred Trump, paterfamilias of the orange one, leader of the new White Reich.
Guthrie even criticized his landlord’s racism in a version of his song, “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” Turns out, Trump has been a thorn in the working man’s side and in the sides of people of color for a couple generations now. One song didn’t stop him. Maybe 100 more will?
A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and His Month of Song, featuring Sera Cahoone, Bill Frisell, Shelby Earl, John Doe, Dave Alvin, Ian Moore, Gerald Collier, and former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, will be held Thurs May 26 at Benaroya Hall.