Woody Guthrie's Indelible Mark On American Culture
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the National Mall and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and we're using this occasion to mark the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie. And let's begin with our host Stephen Kidd, director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and thanks very much for finding a spot for us here at the Mall. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
It is impossible to imagine the Folklife Festival on this centennial without a tribute to Woody Guthrie.
STEPHEN KIDD: Yes, we're really pleased that you could send the word out about Woody Guthrie to the nation as a whole. He is fundamental to what we do here, which is share the voices of people who make their own culture here on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
CONAN: And we should explain, around us are all of the great Smithsonian museums. The Castle is just over there, the famous castle that everybody recognizes, but on this occasion every summer, the Smithsonian Institution explodes onto the Mall and has - well, this year, describe some of the things you're doing.
KIDD: Sure, yeah, the festival is the Smithsonian's living exhibition, and this year we're happy to be featuring three programs, one called Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt. That is looking at a longstanding tradition of quilting and the way in which it has been used by communities to deal with the crisis of HIV/AIDS.
Then another program is the Campus and Community program, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of land grant and public universities and the USDA.
CONAN: And more about that later in this program.
KIDD: Yes, yes. And then the third program is looking at our own backyard here in Washington, D.C., the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and the rich cultural traditions that residents of the Anacostia neighborhood explore.
CONAN: Well, Stephen Kidd, again thanks for hosting us here at TALK OF THE NATION, and good luck with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival again this year.
KIDD: Thanks very much.
CONAN: I hope the weather continues to cooperate so brilliantly. It's about a million degrees here. Let's continue. We want to hear from you today. Which Woody Guthrie song is most relevant to you today? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org.
And, well, there's going to be some extraneous sounds on the program today, we're in a tent on the National Mall. For example, there's a truck going by sprinkling water on the ground to avoid raising dust. But in any case, please bear with us.
Later in the program, as mentioned, the historic role and now historic challenges that face America's land grant universities. But we begin with Woody Guthrie. And let me introduce Jeff Place, head archivist of the Smithsonian Folklife Collection, author of "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection." He's here with us in the tent. Nice of you to be with us.
JEFF PLACE: Yeah, good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: And Bob Santelli joins us from member station KCUR in Kansas City. He's executive director of the Grammy Museum, author of "The Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song." And welcome to you, as well.
BOB SANTELLI: Happy to be here, thank you.
CONAN: And Bob Santelli, I was interested to read in your book that Woody Guthrie started writing songs when he was co-host of a radio program, a radio guy.
SANTELLI: That's right, he was, one of the original radio guys.
CONAN: That was back in Los Angeles, and tell us how that evolved.
SANTELLI: Well, Woody Guthrie emigrated from the Midwest, particularly Oklahoma, and made his way in the late 1930s to Los Angeles like so many did to escape the Dust Bowl and to try to find a California dream. And when he got there, he got lucky enough to wind up on KFED, a very progressive, liberal radio station in Los Angeles. That gave him an opportunity to play some songs from back home and play some songs that he had just begun to write.
He catches on big-time with the Okies and others who had come from Oklahoma and the Midwest to Los Angeles, and reality creates the persona of Woody Guthrie on that radio show.
CONAN: And as part of that broadcast, heads out to some of the Hoovervilles, these were the, well, I guess the Occupy movements of their day.
SANTELLI: Yeah, exactly. He goes and travels through Southern California or Central California and begins to realize that many of the people who had come to California in search of this California dream, which in essence was an opportunity for a new job, a new start, some human dignity that just wasn't happening back in Oklahoma with the repossession of their farms by banks or the elimination of their farms by the great Dust Bowl.
And he realized that for many of those people, the California dream turned into the California nightmare. These were people who couldn't get jobs even though they were promised and were going hungry, and kids were going without food and shoes.
And he decided to essentially become the spokesperson of his people out in California, and he begins to write songs that reflect their predicament and give them both a voice but also hope through the music he wrote.
CONAN: Jeff Place, it's one thing to decide to become their spokesman; it's another thing to catch that spirit in lyrics and poetry and music that haunts us to this day.
PLACE: I think Guthrie, the thing about Guthrie I've discovered, having worked with his materials for 25 years, is that he had these incredible bursts of creative energy that couldn't hardly harness him once he got going, when he got inspired. What he saw out in those Hoovervilles, you know, the people, the way they were living, you know, and he happened to have a guy who had a radio show adjacent to his who was, you know, a socialist.
And he started, like, learning from this guy, and really got, like, empowered politically, and just this incredible creative mill that was Woody Guthrie all of a sudden just started cranking and cranking and kept going for about 10 years.
CONAN: He's written something like 3,000 songs.
PLACE: That's what they say. You know, they may still find them because he'd write, he would get up in the morning and write all these songs. He'd write them on the back of, like, newspapers and Christmas wrapping paper we got one. You know, and, you know, he left a lot of them sort of laying around. He'd move on to wherever he was going. So I'm sure somebody's grandkid is going to find one in a shoebox in the attic one of these days.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear which song is relevant to you of Woody Guthrie's today, and let's begin with Celia, Celia with us from Moab in Utah.
CELIA: Yeah, hi, good morning, thanks for taking the call.
CELIA: I grew up on this music, and the song that popped to mind first when you asked was "Pretty Boy Floyd" and especially the last couple lines of the song, you know, through this rude world I've rambled, I've seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen. And then of course the last line that you'll never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.
And I just, I think about the community here in rural Utah where I live now. I moved here from L.A. And, you know, there's lots of strange, eclectic folks, but they're very neighborly, as opposed to the big corporations and the big banks that are running people from their homes these days into foreclosures.
CONAN: Well, Jeff Place, let me ask you, that's "Pretty Boy" Floyd from Oklahoma.
PLACE: Yeah, from Oklahoma. He was a bank robber. Actually, people say he wasn't really a Robin Hood character in real life.
CONAN: Not really, no.
PLACE: He was, like, you know, one of the top most wanted guys. He wasn't a great guy. But he became a good model to make this Robin Hood ballad on. And it's just typical of a Woody Guthrie song. I think nowadays, so many of what Guthrie wrote in the 1930s and '40s are really relevant to things happening right now. I think that's one thing that makes him sort of special.
CONAN: And let me turn again to Bob Santelli, and thanks very much for the call, Celia.
CELIA: Thank you.
CONAN: Those trips to those Hoovervilles, sarcastically named for our former President Herbert Hoover and the policies that some say led to the Depression that he caused, but nevertheless, that was the start also of the rambling that Woody Guthrie had. I don't think he ever stopped in his life.
SANTELLI: He never did, and actually it began even before he got to California. You know, he thought nothing of hitchhiking into Texas. After he leaves Oklahoma, he moves to Pampa, Texas, and is always on the go. This is not the kind of person who was going to be in one place for any one particular period of time.
But that's what made him great. I mean, he got to see elements of the country that most people back then didn't even have a clue existed. And the fact that he was so prolific as a writer, basically his writings, whether it be songs or journal entries or letters or whatever because he wrote so much every single day, it's a living testament, a living document to common, everyday working-man life in America during the Great Depression.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, and this is William, William with us on the line from Petaluma in California.
WILLIAM: Hi, amazing program. You know, he wasn't just a biography of California. He was - really did work with the working-class experience in - around the country. The favorite, my favorite song of Woody Guthrie's was the "1913 Massacre," which was a mining conflict back East.
And it really definitely was the experience (unintelligible) a small way of a very larger relationship between the working class and the company.
CONAN: And forgive me, your cell phone is betraying you, so we're going to have to let you go, but Jeff Place, a little bit more about that song?
PLACE: Well, that one is - you know, the one thing that's a real misconception about Woody Guthrie, you know, it's the mythology he created himself was this hobo guy on the train, sort of the country guy. He affected these accepts and things like that, which was not his normal accent.
He was really an intellectual because we have a book in the archive where he is debating, like, Jefferson and Hamilton, "The Federalist Papers," in the margins of the book. He read a book by a labor activist named Mother Bloor. It was a book in New York, once he was up in New York, and he learned about all these labor, like, you know, events and labor martyrs, and that's where he got the "1913 Massacre" song was out of a story in that book.
CONAN: A lot of songs about, well, the 1913 massacres, bank robbers and a lot of other things. Of course, he also wrote songs for children. We can't talk about Woody Guthrie without listening to some of his music. Here is "Bling Blang" from folk singer Elizabeth Mitchell, who is here with us in the tent with her husband Daniel Littleton.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLING BLANG")
ELIZABETH MITCHELL: (Singing) You get a hammer and I'll get a nail; you catch a bird and I'll catch a snail. You bring a board and I'll bring a saw; we'll build a house for the ba-by-o. Bling blang, hammer with a hammer, zing-o zang-o cutting with my saw. Bling blang, hammer with a hammer, zing-o zang-o cutting with my saw.
(Singing) You grab some mud, and I'll grab some clay. When it rains it won't wash away. We'll build a house that'll be so strong, the winds will sing my baby a song. Bling blang, hammer with a hammer, zing-o zang-o cutting with my saw. Bling blang, hammer with a hammer, zing-o zang-o cutting with my saw.
(Singing) Run and bring rocks, and I'll bring...
CONAN: That's Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton, singing a little from Woody Guthrie. More in just a moment with them. We'll also be talking more with Jeff Place and Bob Santelli. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I'm Neal Conan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're on the National Mall today at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. We're celebrating the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth. Most of us can name a handful of his songs and performances released over the years. He wrote thousands, as we mentioned. Many were never released.
To mark his 100th birthday, Smithsonian Folkways put out three new CDs that include a number of previously unreleased Guthrie performances, including this one, a song called "Them Big City Ways."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEM BIG CITY WAYS")
WOODY GUTHRIE: Well, howdy friend, (unintelligible) here's a song here I'm going to sing to you that's got sort of a college education in it, one that I had come to me one time when my mind wasn't doing nothing else, one that come to me when I just sort of got to watching the ways of a big city.
(Singing) Brother John moved into town, he rented him a flat and settled down. (Unintelligible), getting them big-city ways. Brought his wife and kids along, but $15 didn't last long, (unintelligible) getting them big-city ways. The finance company right next door got his paycheck, then some more. (Unintelligible), he's getting them big-city ways.
(Singing) The banker got his furniture, and the auto company got his car. (Unintelligible), getting them big-city ways.
CONAN: "Big City Ways" by Woody Guthrie, one of his earliest known recordings, made in 1937. Which Woody Guthrie song is most relevant to you today? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join our conversation at our website. That's at npr.org.
Our guests are Jeff Place, the head archivist of the Smithsonian Folklife Collection and author of "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection." Also Bob Santelli, who wrote the book "The Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song." He serves as executive director at the Grammy Museum. We're also going to be hearing some more music from Elizabeth Mitchell, we hope. Her latest album is "Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie."
And Jeff Place, you listened to "Big City Ways," and you can't help but hear Bob Dylan in that song.
PLACE: Oh yeah, well, you know, it's funny, Dylan, you know, he freely admits to being a Woody Guthrie jukebox when he first came to New York City. He learned everything Woody had done. That was an interesting thing, Pete La Chapelle, who was a fellow at the Smithsonian about 10 years ago, when he was doing research in Southern California, he was interviewing a labor activist named Henry Hay, who said, you know, I was involved with Woody, and we recorded some stuff really early on in L.A. on these discs. And I had them, and I donated them to this library in Southern California.
So Pete went and found them in the library, kind of the back room, and copied them and brought me a cassette tape a couple years ago of this stuff. So we had them recopied. But these apparently are the first ever recordings of Woody Guthrie that have ever been found at this point.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, Bob Santelli, the history of recording by Woody Guthrie, we remember so many other artists at this particular period of time recording for various companies and, well, never quite getting paid, never quite getting royalties. Is that the same story for Woody Guthrie?
SANTELLI: Well, you know, first of all, Woody Guthrie didn't have a real good sense of money in the first place. He's not - he wasn't the one to save and really demand what was rightfully his. But nonetheless, you know, he was paid probably more money for his radio shows than he was for his records.
You know, he first records commercially in 1940, and over the next few years until probably around the early 1950s, when Huntington's disease is really beginning to consume his brain and his muscular system. So he records a whole lot but mostly for Folkways, of which Jeff of course has a wealth of that material in the archives.
But, you know, I don't think the records were Guthrie's strength. Woody Guthrie was best when he was performing, whether it would be in a union hall, on a street corner, somebody's back porch or even in a living room of an old-fashioned hootenanny down in Greenwich Village.
But everyone that I spoke to in terms of writing the book always talked about Guthrie the performer because he would be able to put those little side stories in and be able to add the nuances to help bring to life the songs that he recorded. But clearly he's not around anymore, and now what we have left are the recordings, and that's the next best thing.
CONAN: And it's interesting that he would say that, Jeff Place, because you listen, and he's not a great guitarist, he's not a great singer. He's got some nice - it's OK, but...
PLACE: Well, it's actually funny because when he met his wife Marjorie, his second wife, who is Arlo's mother, he was - they hired him to try to, like, do the music behind a dance performance, and he could never play a guitar in time. You know, he'd keep going with that.
So I think Bob's right. I think the reason why I wanted to put a lot of this unrelated radio performance stuff on this box set, these three CDs, is because you get to hear Woody Guthrie in his element, like performing.
CONAN: And talking up the material like he would on the radio and a skilled radio performer, but he did some work for, Bob Santelli, for, well, NBC and CBS, the old big radio networks.
SANTELLI: That's right. Well, when he gets to New York back in the late '30s and '40s, the left and the intellectuals of the big cities, particularly in New York, they saw Woody Guthrie as this authentic Okie. And Guthrie didn't do a whole lot to dissuade them from that. He really kind of played up what he was doing and how he spoke.
And so there was a great need for having someone of his caliber and character represent what was going on in California and in the Midwest, and there he was in New York City. So he got gigs. The problem was that he always felt that going on the radio and making this money, in particular carrying on with radio programs that had sponsors that maybe he wasn't necessarily interested in or behind, it made him very, very uncomfortable.
And more times than not, he didn't last. He would run, or he'd travel, or he would go somewhere. And in New York, he was making a nice living by the end of 1940 and decides at the spur of the moment at year's end: I've had enough, I'm going back to California.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Shara(ph).
SHARA: Yes, hi.
CONAN: Shara with us from Carville in Texas. Go ahead.
SHARA: It's very difficult to pick one song of his. I grew up on Woody. I grew up on "Union Made" and "Talking Union Blues." Also I wanted to give a nod to the fact that he was also a pretty terrific artist. But the song I think that moves me the most, and it's the most relevant today, would be "Deportees."
CONAN: "Deportees." And why is that?
SHARA: Well, "Deportees" is also subtitled, I believe, "Plane Crash at Los Gatos." And it's basically about Mexican immigrants who were being returned back to Mexico, and their plane crashes. And Woody's comment is we don't look at them as people. They're not a bunch of people, they're not individuals. They're just a group of deportees, of nameless, faceless people.
And I see a lot of parallels today with how we deal with immigration.
CONAN: Well, let's turn back to our musicians here in the tent. I think Daniel Littleton is going to help us out with a little bit of "Deportees."
DANIEL LITTLETON: I'll give it a try.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPORTEES")
LITTLETON: (Singing) The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting. The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps. They're flying them back to that Mexico border to pay all your money to wade back again. Goodbye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita, adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria. You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportees.
CONAN: That's Daniel Littleton there. We're on a tent here on the Mall in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. We're talking about the centennial of Woody Guthrie, born 100 years ago next week. Our guests are: Jeff Place, the head archivist at the Smithsonian Folklife Collection, author of "Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection"; Bob Santelli is also with us from KCUR, a member station in Kansas City. He's the author of "The Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song."
And let's go next to Kathleen, and Kathleen's on the line with us from St. Louis.
CONAN: Hi, Kathleen.
KATHLEEN: I want to give you a little bit of background about why this is such a favorite song for me right now. I work for a refugee resettlement agency. We do all kinds of assessment services for immigrants and refugees. And one of the things we do every year at Thanksgiving time is have a big Thanksgiving dinner, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings and the turkey and all of that.
And before this day, all of the ESOL teachers teach all the refugees the song "This Land is Your Land."
CONAN: English as a second language, that's ESOL, yes. Go ahead.
KATHLEEN: Right, yeah, and some of them virtually speak no English at all, but they stand up, and they sing "This Land is Your Land." And they have such pride, and they're just beaming with joy that they really feel that this is their land now. So...
CONAN: Bob Santelli, let's turn to you as the expert on this song. And in addition to - and thanks very much for that suggestion, Kathleen. But I wanted to add this email that we had from Robert that - he said Utah Phillips recorded what he claimed were the lost lyrics of "This Land is Your Land," that included the verse: So take your slogan and kindly stow it. If this is our land, you'll never know. Let's get together and overthrow it, then this land will be for you and me. And I think this comes under the category of people who've taken Woody Guthrie's outline and adapted their own material for it.
SANTELLI: Many people have done that, and not just in America, but literally all over the world. Guthrie Centennial is being celebrated all across Europe, in Asia. It's remarkable at how many people have connected to Woody Guthrie over the years, and how many people use "This Land is Your Land" as a song of hope, song of inspiration. But over the years, many people have changed the lyrics. You know, if you were talking about a situation at your school, this school is your school. This school is my school.
You know, this is anything you could add to it makes sense, as long as it's a song of hope and encouragement. And Woody Guthrie encouraged that. Pete Seeger has encouraged that over the years. It's been one of the songs that have had more lyrics than we can even imagine. But the first lyrics - the first set of lyrics were basically written as an inspiration from Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." The song was originally called "God Blessed America," past tense.
And Guthrie uses the song as a response to the very famous song by Irving Berlin sung by Kate Smith in the 19 - late 1930s. It was so popular in America, from coast to coast. And Guthrie's song has endured. It's endured because many of us, myself included, learned that song in grade school as a great sing-along song. It just made you feel good. And I remember my fifth-grade teacher telling us what a great patriotic song it was. And it wasn't until later on when I heard a Bob Dylan song called "Song to Woody" that I did my homework going back, well, that's the same guy who wrote "This Land is Your Land." And my love affair with the song began at that point.
CONAN: And I wanted to add - to ask Jeff Place. In an odd way - and you wouldn't think this - I think Woody Guthrie shares a skill with Irving Berlin, two very different songwriters, two very different people. But the ability to write a song which, after you hear it, you feel as if you've known it your whole life.
PLACE: Well, I don't know if Berlin did this as much as Guthrie, but Guthrie, you know, he consciously used older melodies - and a lot of composers have done that - so that the audience can immediately pick up on it. So you, like, start singing - you know, like the song we listened to, "Big City Ways," is based off a major country hit at the time called "Brown's Ferry Blues." So everybody who was like - who knew that song could just immediately pick up on it and sing along. And that was, you know - and people say, OK. Is that stealing? No. It's just the way that topical songs work. People wanted - well, he wanted these things to be sung by the people. He wanted the lyrics to change.
CONAN: We're at the American - the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go to someone here in the tent on the Mall. Go ahead, Doug.
DOUG: One of the verses to "This Land is Your Land" that I've heard attributed to Woody Guthrie was: As I was walking, I saw a sign there. And on the one side, it said no trespass. But on the other side, it didn't say nothing. That side was made for you and me. Is that true?
CONAN: Bob Santelli, is that authentic?
SANTELLI: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
CONAN: That's part of the original song?
SANTELLI: Yes. And Guthrie, in addition to other people changing the lyrics, as Jeff already knows - because, I think, Jeff, you have maybe some samples of this in the archives. But Guthrie changed the lyrics a number of times, as well. You know, you can do that with folk music, and Guthrie felt that the necessity of the song was due to the situation at hand. So if he was at a rally and he needed to change a song - a verse or two, not just in "This Land is Your Land," but in any song, he certainly did that frequently.
PLACE: Well, you know, there's a tradition with these kind of protest, topical songs called zipper songs.
PLACE: And you can unzip them and stick a different - civil rights movement did this all the time. They just changed geographical locations and stuff. The one I'd look at is "So Long (It's Been Good to Know You)." If you look at the lyrics in the Smithsonian archives, you've got the Dust Bowl version. Then you get an anti-Hitler, World War II, patriotic version of it with different lyrics. And then you change it again a third time for The Weavers. They make it a very, kind of, clean, pop hit. And I'm sure if he'd, like, not gotten sick, it would probably become a Korean War song and maybe a civil rights song.
CONAN: And then a Vietnam War song...
PLACE: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
CONAN: ...and on and on and on. Yeah. Let's see if we get a question from Ruth here on the mic at the tent.
RUTH: Hi. Thank you. I was just commenting on the irony of the location, that you happen to be in the AIDS quilt tent. My friend Don was Woody Guthrie's nurse at King's County, and he's remembered in the quilt. So I wonder what you would think that Woody would sing about that?
CONAN: Let me turn that to you, Bob Santelli.
SANTELLI: Well, you know, Woody Guthrie spent many years dying, I should say, and sadly so and painfully so. You know, it starts in the early 1950s, and he ultimately succumbs to Huntington's disease in 1967. Along the way, he established relationships with many nurses. He was in a bunch of different hospitals. But clearly, this was a man who appreciated the work of the common man, the person who did the work that didn't get credit for it, or did the work that no one else wanted to do.
And, of course, being a nurse is a tough job, so I think Woody Guthrie would have been very proud and happy to have written a song - if he could have - about any of the nurses that took care of him. Unfortunately, he had lost the use of his hands. They shook too much for him to write. He could hardly speak. And at the very, very end, he could hardly swallow.
CONAN: Well, there's no other way to end this than with one of those hootenanny sing-alongs. Let's turn again to Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton to see if we can go to a little bit of "This Land is Your Land." And you guys may know the lyrics. If you do, sing along.
In the meantime, our thanks to Jeff Place, who's the head archivist of the Smithsonian Folklife Collection, and Bob Santelli, who's executive director at the Grammy Museum. He joined us from KCUR. Jeff Place was with us here in the tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Take it away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")
MITCHELL: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulfstream waters, this land was made for you and me. As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway. I saw below me that golden valley. This land was made for you and me.
CONAN: We're at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Up next, 150 years after the Land-Grant College Act. We'll talk about how it continues to transform farming and ranching. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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