Friday, July 20, 2012

Happy Birthday Woody

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

On July 14th 1912 Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah Oklahoma. Now virtually no one knows him by that name. We just know him as Woody. Every year on the weekend closest to his birthday, there is a folk music festival held in his old home town. This year was the 15th annual Woodyfest. The festival celebrates Woody's life and music. And I was lucky enough to get to go again this year.

Now in this country Woody is best known for writing This Land Is Your Land. Which has virtually become a second national anthem. We all learn some of the basic verses in school. But we seldom learn too much else about him.

During the Dust Bowl, Woody wandering the country seeing how the people suffered and were dislocated. And Woody spent a lot of time here in California. He was an early radio personality. He had a series of jobs at various radio stations down in the LA area. He didn' put up with too much control by the station or the sponsors, so ended up quitting or getting fired from most of them. But his music and ideas made him popular enough to get a new gig when he wanted. 

And Woody spent a lot of time near Bakersfield and California's Central Valley. Where he was an advocate for the migrant farmers, the dislocated Okies, and exploited workers. He wrote songs like Pastures of Plenty about the migrant farm workers, and songs like Deportee which told the story of how some Mexican farm workers were treated.

But Woody is famous around the world for having the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists” printed on the front of his guitar. And there were several performers at the festival that were from around the world. There were several coming from Australia, including Audrey Auld, who played at Mama Hillybeans here in Tehachapi. And Billy Bragg was there from the UK.

Billy Bragg was one of the first to get permission to start creating new music from some of the many lyrics and poems that Woody left after his death. If you've heard the song Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key which is a popular song over at Fiddler's Crossing, Billy Bragg is the one who took the lyric that Woody left and put it to music.

Taking things from his archive and giving then new voices has become a big project for the Woody Guthrie Archives. Many of the current songwriters working in so called “folk music” have and are working on putting his lyrics to music.

And there are a lot of lyrics out there to be worked on. Woody died young, in 1967, of Huntington's Disease, a progressive degenerative disease of the nervous system. But for as long as his was capable, Woody continued to write.
And there are some powerful songs coming out of his period in the hospital. And I hope that is a lesson we can get from his life. No matter what challenges the world hands us, we can continue to create new things, new art, new songs, new poetry. Even when we can't necessarily finish it on our own, if it's worth doing, then do it.

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