Learning from Woody

On July 12, 2012, Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old. This poster commemorates a life well-lived, and a voice that has never rested. You can support the Woody Guthrie Foundation if you buy this poster. You can learn a lot from Woody. I did, as explained below.

“Hey kids, want to sing a song? Some of you might know this song, but the words can be hard to remember. Here’s a sheet with the lyrics…”

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

Singing “This Land Is Your Land” as a group exercise begins an exploration of surprising dimensions. Note how broad, deep and wide Woody Guthrie’s river of highway manages to travel.

Just as most people’s knowledge of Martin Luther King begins and ends with an “I Have a Dream” speech and a murder in Memphis, most people’s knowledge of Woody Guthrie begins and ends with one popular song. Turns out, there was a lot more to Woody, and, a lot more to this particular song. Here’s a lyric that you might not have heard Woody sing:

 There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property.

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

Woody sang this song (and many of his songs) with different verses (see note 1 below). Among folk singers, and storytellers, this remains common practice (also, among jazz musicians, but rarely among the commercial performers whose recordings are usually the definitive versions of their songs). In fact, Woody’s own life story can be difficult to follow because he often recalled his own life as a storyteller might– with different details depending upon his audience.

As I think about Woody Guthrie, and about how people learn, I envision a different kind of education than most people find at school, an education based upon individual learning and ideas that connect with one another, and with the heart and soul. I think that’s a better way to learn, or, at least, i think that’s the way I learn.

Turns out, Woody’s full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and he was named for a presidential candidate, then president of Princeton University. By age 14, Woody was living pretty much on his own in his hometown, Okemah, Oklahoma; his mother had been institutionalized with the Huntington’s Disease that would later take her life, and his father was living in Texas (see note 2 below). Woody becomes a street musician, then leaves for promise of California, one more Okie whose life was shaped by the Dust Bowl tragedy. In Los Angeles, he sang hillbilly music on the radio as part of a duo, but spent lots of his spare time thinking about, and writing about, working class people who could not find work. Woody wrote protest songs, and, for a few months, wrote for a Communist newspaper (though he was never a member of the Party).

Learning about Woody in the 1930s leads the interested student (me, among them) into the plight of real people during the Depression; ways in which creative people somehow earn a living; why creative people sometimes find traditional work difficult to do; the importance of unions for the working man; the story of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River; socialism and communal living; the blacklists of the early 1950s; life in a singing group; writing an autobiography; the usefulness of cartooning (Woody drew cartoons); the work of the Library of Congress in preserving the nation’s heritage; the slow demise of Coney Island and Brooklyn in the 1940s; deportation of immigrants; the emergence of Bob Dylan and 1960s folk singers in Greenwich Village; the life of Leadbelly, an ex-convict (doing time for murder) who sang his way out of lifetime in prison to become a popular folksinger (he was Woody’s friend; “Goodnight Irene” was one of his songs); Sacco & Vanzetti and questions regarding fair trials; the concept of an artist’s legacy; a son carrying on his father’s work and then finding his own way as an artist and a man; a granddaughter finding her way through the music industry, too.

Clearly, Woody’s music and Woody’s story appeals to me. In writing these two pages, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m certain that I will follow up. That’s how I learn. I wonder whether most people learn this way. I suspect they do.


1 – An interesting question for aspiring musicians: when is a song “finished?” Is a song a continuing work of art that should be malleable, or is it final at the time it is recorded. This conversation quickly leads to another about copyrights and how they work: which version of the song would be protected by copyright, and why?

2 – Later, Woody Guthrie would die from the same hereditary disease. This leads the student to a study of genetics, family trees and genealogy, and diseases of the nervous system. George Huntington’s 1872 discovery of the disease is an interesting story about how diseases are identified, and how medical research has evolved. Back further, one theory of the “witches” burned in 1672 in Salem, Massachusetts connects the women involved with symptoms associated with Huntington’s disease. Playwright Arthur Miller told this Salem story differently when he wrote his play, The Crucible, to get people to think more critically about anti-Communist campaign waged by the dubious Senator Joseph McCarthy.

3 – Further encouragement: I’m not the first to see the value of Woody Guthrie’s life and art as a platform for further learning in a many related areas of knowledge. Guthrie curriculum materials can be found here.

On Our Side

Ani DiFranco marching in DC for Women’s Lives in 2004. Her new album is entitled Which Side Are You On?

I love Ani DiFranco’s commanding version of Pete Seeger’s classic, “¿Which Side Are You On?” Her vocal is strident and scolding, hopeful and demanding. With each verse, she raises important questions, and insists that we, at least, think about the answers. The backup voices, percussion and increasing distortion suggests a dark revolutionary march; she’s in front of the angry crowd, instructing, inciting, leading the charge. She’s terrific.

She’s provocative when she sings about “Promiscuity,” offering a cool lyrical analysis with “promiscuity is nothing more than traveling, there’s more than one way to see the world.” She’s fully exposed on “Life Boat,” a song about a failed mom’s sadness and self-image featuring “red scabby hands” and “purple scabby feet.” She’s political and forceful when she proposes an “Amendment” to provide civil rights to women, a good song that promotes the “right to civil union with equal rights and equal protection, intolerance finally ruined.”

This is Ani DiFranco’s ambitious, righteous, significant side. She is a songwriter and a performer who thinks, and isn’t at all afraid to tell us what she thinks and why.

Then, there’s the other side, the side that confuses me, the writer who takes the easy way out, as on “Zoo,” where we’re treated to “I can no longer watch TV cuz that shit really melts my brain…” and “I go to do my food shopping and all I can see is packaging and a mountain of garbage about to be happening…” Sure, every record’s got its B-sides, but DiFranco’s good work is so strong, I wince when I hear work I wish she had done better. Moreso because her lyrics are both interesting to the ear and smart enough to be worth reading. And, even moreso because her songs quickly become old friends, worthy of replays for weeks on end. The more I listen, the more I like what I hear.

But I do keep coming back to the Seeger song. He plays some banjo at the start of it, but it’s Ani DiFranco’s power that electrifies the song and its meaning. And it’s that song that anchors this album, a nod from one authentic performer to another. Wouldn’t it be fun to hear her perform an album filled with Seeger songs, a female counter to Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, or maybe, even better, an album exposing lesser-knowns who took sides in their time: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, maybe Joan Baez, too.

Buy the album directly from the artist’s Righteous Babe label.

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