Woody Guthrie: Dust Can’t Kill Me

14 Jul

Today is the 101st anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birthday, as his Facebook page reminded, asking what his friends are doing to celebrate. The answer? Same thing as the 364 days that are not his birthday: listen to at least three minutes of Woody Guthrie (the cut above is but 2:55).

This year’s birthday is the B side to 2012’s 100th celebration: no PBS special, no $175 Kennedy Center parties, no commentaries longer than a Guthrie song. He probably would have preferred it this way.

Guthrie has been dead for 46 of those 101 years, long enough to revise his story line as if it was one of his songs. Which, ironically enough, has been done to This Land is Your Land, to the point where that song isn’t completely Guthrie’s anymore.

“The lyrics had been written in anger, as a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which Woody Guthrie deplored as treacle,” wrote David Hajdu in a 2004 New Yorker book review.

According to Hajdu, Guthrie showed son Arlo one of the verses deleted from the song:

”One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people—
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God Blessed America for me.”

I’m guessing you didn’t hear that verse even if you did hear This Land is Your Land at a July 4th celebration.

But the last century’s cult hero is this one’s establishment hero. “Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough,” wrote Lawrence Downes last year in the New York Times. “They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service.”

Which Guthrie did in 1998 when he was put on a stamp over his son’s objections. “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,” Arlo said, according to Downes. And Arlo is the Republican in the family.

Perhaps it’s only fitting what’s become of the Postal Service since honoring Woody, though he would no doubt take no joy from the despair of its employees.

Guthrie — born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie shortly after the nomination of the soon-to-be 28th president of the United States in 1912 — was born into a wealthy family, which lost most of that wealth in the Depression, according to Hajdu. There wasn’t any doubt whose side Guthrie was on.

“He was a man of many contradictions,” wrote Downes, “but he was always against the rich and on the side of the oppressed.”

Listen to Ballad of Tom Joad: read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath if you have time, but listen to Guthrie’s song if you don’t (recall the scene in Cheers when Diane tells Sam she’s going to reward him for reading War and Peace by taking him to see the movie. The movie? Sam: “Before I read War and Peace again in five days just to impress some broad, it’s going to be a cold day in Minsk.”). Ballad of Tom Joad is better than the movie, and the author would have understood.

“My father met Woody several times,” Thom Steinbeck said on fogcityjournal.com in 2008. “There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output . . .

“Dad made it very clear to Woody . . . you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.”

Above is a link to Dust Can’t Kill Me, written in 1938. “. . . sometimes the anger became a near shriek, as in the opening verse of ‘Dust Can’t Kill Me,’ a song that captured the defiant pride and anguish Woody had seen in the camps . . .,” wrote Joe Klein, in his book Woody Guthrie: A Life.

That old dust storm killed my baby,
But it can’t kill me, Lord
And it can’t kill me.

Sources: nytimes.com, newyorker.com, fogcityjournal.com, Woody Guthrie: A Life

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