Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my heroes, Woody Guthrie. My family and I celebrated in the most appropriate way, by singing lots of his songs, thanks to a sing-along at Reach and Teach, a local company devoted to peace and justice education. Our singing was led by the duo Folk This! and punctuated by occasional passage of Caltrain, as the store’s yard backs onto the train tracks. Since Guthrie spent plenty of time riding the rails with other hoboes, wrote many songs about trains and popularized Goebel Reeves’s beautiful “Hobo’s Lullaby,” the clack and rush of the train seemed very appropriate, though it would have been even more appropriate in the early morning when the freight trains come through.
The scope of what his songs mean to me is beyond my ability to say, so I will go smaller. Certain phrases in Guthrie’s songs have woven themselves into the fabric of my life, the way words will when they shape our thoughts or express something we’ve long felt.
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor (“I Ain’t Got No Home”)
I don’t think he’s talking about Las Vegas. Guthrie turned 17, a working man, the year the stock market threw the country into the Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act not having been passed yet, bankers and investors could speculate wildly with people’s deposits, as they can again today, and I think those were the gamblers he had in mind. What the line always makes me think about is how we tax the income earned from work at a higher rate than the income from investments, which is to say, bets placed on the market. If we valued work the way Guthrie did, I don’t think we would set up the tax system this way.
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I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine
“California Stars” is one of the hundreds (thousands?) of songs Guthrie wrote but never recorded; his daughter Nora wanted some of them to be set to music and performed, and Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco wrote the music. It’s my favorite song on the first Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration, Mermaid Avenue. It has a place in the soundtrack of my life, since I was listening to this album a lot at the time I moved to California and danced to it often in my first weeks here, which were lonely and full of promise. I just love that image of the stars hanging in the sky like grapes. What a wine they would make.
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Since our daughter’s birth we’ve had Guthrie’s Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child, which all sound like songs an astoundingly prolific songwriter might spontaneously invent while taking care of his children. They are full of nonsense and endearments, and talk about topics like burping a baby (“You’ll fly up so high / In the clouds and skies / If you don’t make a blubble . . . Blow a bubble soon”), taking a bath, picking up toys, and this one about the incessant questions in a houseful of young children (“Why Oh Why”):
Why, oh why, oh why oh, why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because because because because
Goodbye goodbye goodbye
To know why a mouse can’t eat a streetcar, why a cow drinks water, why your grandpa ain’t your grandma, etc., you’ll have to click above and read all the lyrics.
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I’m moved by “The Unwelcome Guest” (another set to music posthumously, by Billy Bragg), and its paradox of “I’ll still be here after I’m gone.”
Yes, they´ll catch me napping one day
and they´ll kill me
And then I´ll be gone but that won´t be my end
For my guns and my saddle will always be filled
By unwelcome travellers and other brave men
Guthrie uses a similar trope about absence, presence, and immortality in “Tom Joad,” when Tom says goodbye to his Ma and says, “Wherever people ain’t free, Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights, That’s where I’m a-gonna be.” And of course it shows up in Alfred Hayes’s song “Joe Hill,” which Guthrie surely knew. It seems to have been the kind of immortality that was most important to Woody Guthrie, who suspected by his 30s that he had the same disease that killed his mother at age 42. It’s the kind of immortality he has achieved, and a kind that’s available to any of us, if we choose to live that way.