An American Music Heritage
I bring all this up because Woody Guthrie's music was very much a product of the places from whence he came. Tracing his career, you can hear the oppressive billowing of the dust bowl, the Hollywood, the rolling of the Columbia River and the rhythmic hammering of the men working on the dams, the railroads, their picking and cutting of crops along the railroad lines. Later in his life and career, you could even begin to hear the spastic sputtering of the city – the raunchiness, the daring, the cacophony of Manhattan.
This last part was carried on and magnified by his protégé Bob Dylan, of course, but has persisted in the way Guthrie’s legacy has draped itself over the likes of more contemporary singer-songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Tom Morello, Nellie McKay, Michael Franti, and others.
Timeless Stories and Songs
The disc also includes a number of Guthrie’s stories and musings, recited by the likes of Studs Terkel, Ani DiFranco, Chris Whitley, and Pete Seeger. These story breaks are, at times, more like journal entries – observations or a toying with words. Where Guthrie’s own songs stuck to simple storytelling, these excerpts puff a bit more toward poetry.
DiFranco’s selection, specifically, is a bit more cryptic – exploring the various ways humans use their voices, the languages we speak – the way in which there is a language of service and a language of entitlement. Guthrie spends the poem (or whatever you choose to call it) searching for the language which speaks to him. He cannot find it in film or through the various avenues of mainstream media. He finds it only in the ways individuals communicate directly with one another. The moral, of course, being one about individual empowerment – about using one’s own voice in any context in order to balance the language of commerce and consumerism.
"Music is... a sound life uses to keep the living alive"
Seeger’s voice toward the end of the disc carries you up a hill to look out over the century which has passed since Guthrie’s birth. It’s been a century of wars and revolutions – one which has seen the rising wealth of the American upper class, and has swung the pendulum past the Great Depression to an era of relative economic comfort, and back again. The century since Guthrie’s birth has seen generations of activists achieving things like women's suffrage, labor laws, black civil rights, an unprecedented environmental movement, and other things of which Woody Guthrie – during his short life – was an advocate.
That Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday will come during a year when we’re all trying to decide who will be our next president – during a time when the economy is faltering and jobs are hard to come by – seems like a sick sort of coincidence. But, that a recording like this should also come now, can be a fierce reminder of our place in it all; can be a reminder of what our language is, of how our voices can be used. After all, "Music," Seeger recites, "is a tone of voice - a sound life uses to keep the living alive."