Folk music, by definition, is the music of the people. Like the blues, folk can be written and performed with the most basic of instruments, which is why it has always resonated with the working classes. There are versions of folk music all over the world, each with their own wonderful idiosyncrasies. But what we think of as contemporary folk music here in the United States has strong ties to England, and english folk has roots which stretch back to medieval times.
Naturally, when we “regular folk” are writing music it makes sense that we’ll use the medium as a commentary about any and all injustices that we see. What better place to start than with storied outlaw Robin Hood. In the 14th century, Wynkyn de Worde published a collection of ballads about the man who would later suffer the ignominy of being portrayed by Kevin Costner (American accent and all).
Robin Hood, of course, is famous for robbing the rich and giving the spoils to the poor. Although the accuracy of that is still debated by scholars, regardless, the legend of the man has passed down and the songs reflect the approval of these activities.
“That he would give and lend to them,
To help them in their need;
This made all poor men pray for him,
And he well might speed.”
“A True Tale of Robin Hood” — trad.
Interestingly, as we entered the 16th century the social elite and folk music grew a little closer. Notorious beheader of wives Henry VIII even wrote a song called “Pastime With Good Company.” There has to be some irony there. Certainly bad taste. “Company with honesty, is virtue vices to flee. Company is good and ill, But every man has his free will,” wrote old Hank.
Still, despite the best efforts of the ruling classes, folk remained the music of choice for those at the bottom rather than the few at the top. As the 1800s rolled into the 1900s, English folkies of note included Cecil Sharp (father of the 20th century folk revival). There was a second revival around the Second World War which allowed for the rise of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd.
It would simply be impossible to overstress the importance of Woody Guthrie’s songwriting on American culture. His artistic reaction to what he saw around him and his sheer desire to bend, inform, and subvert would go on to have a huge impact on punk rock music — directly or indirectly. Early groups such as The Clash didn’t hide their affection, and you can hear the impact of Guthrie’s “revolutionary mind” in bands such as Rise Against and Anti-Flag, and of course Rage Against the Machine.
Active between 1930 and ’56, Guthrie was associated with a number of far left groups but, contrary to popular belief, was never officially a member of any communist associations. Still, his lyrics left no space for confusion about where he stood. One of his most famous compositions “This Land Is Your Land” was written after getting sick of hearing “God Bless America” too many times.
“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.”
“This Land Is Your Land” — Woody Guthrie
Those lyrics seem, on the surface, to be very sweet and almost twee. But the sentiment is vital — America belongs to the people, not the leaders. Take it — it’s yours.
“My Revolutionary Mind” was covered by Tom Morello (as “Ease My Revolutionary Mind”) and that makes sense. Morello must have smiled when he heard the words:
“I need a progressive woman,
I need an awfully liberal woman.
I need a social conscious woman,
To ease my revolutionary mind.”
“My Revolutionary Mind” — Woody Guthrie
Guthrie apparently struggled to find that woman because he was married three times, fathering eight children. One of those, Arlo, would go on to have a successful career in music of his own, though getting out of the shadow of a father who broke as much ground as Woody would prove near-impossible. Arlo’s daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, has also had success alongside her musical partner and husband John Irion — perhaps the passing of a bit more time has allowed for her to break away from the family legacy a little while also naturally benefitting from the name.
The influence of Woody Guthrie stretches far beyond his own family. Two artists in particular felt the impact of Guthrie keenly: Pete Seeger, who emerged just a few years after Woody in 1939 but would enjoy a career that lasted until his death at the age of 94 in 2014, and of course Bob Dylan, arguably the most important songwriter in contemporary western music, who first emerged in ’59.
Both of those men will be the subjects of future columns, but it’s worth noting that a doting Dylan visited Guthrie on his deathbed numerous times — bringing him cigarettes to smoke in the hospital (wow, the times sure were a-changing) and singing Guthrie’s own “Tom Joad” to the great man. Dylan idolized Guthrie and was surely ecstatic when asked to play some of his own songs for feedback. Guthrie’s words of advice have passed into legend:
“Kid, don’t worry about writing songs; work on your singing.”
Woody Guthrie’s legacy lives on because he did everything within the perimeters of folk music that we want punk musicians to do. He raised awareness of social injustices, he rallied the people, and he irritated the hell out of the authorities who were keen to paint him as a “commie red” to discredit him. And, armed with his acoustic guitar (adorned with the words “this machine kills fascists”), he didn’t rely on volume and tricks to get his message across. It was all in those lyrics.
Guthrie was and is a treasure. The people’s champion.