Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan's last idol. For me he was more of an acquired taste. I picked up an album called something like The Very, Very Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie and Several Other Rather More Obscure Ones as Well on Bob's recommendation. When I popped it on the CD player (this was before iPods) my first reaction was: "oh, a cowboy singer". I found the music and the accent slightly squeamish and embarrassing. Tastes change; Guthrie can be corny and sentimental; most anthologies insist on including things like "Put My Little Shoes Away", "A Picture From Life's Other Side" and the unforgivable "Goodnight Li'l Arlo" which don't show him in the best light. Even some of the wartime songs can seem a bit astringent by modern standards. "We'll kill the axis rattlesnake and thieves of old Nippon", indeed. Aren't folksingers meant to be about peace and love? Guthrie, of course, painted "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar. Pete Seeger preferred "This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender."
But you can't listen to Woody Guthrie for very long without coming to see why he is revered, canonized, even deified not only by American folksingers but by singers all round the world. Everyone knows Bob Dylan's long monologue about how, in the end, you either turn to God or you turn to Woody Guthrie; but Dylan's tongue-tied introduction to the piece is, in a lot of way, more moving than the poem itself. ("But Woody...is really somethin' more than a folksinger.") I think that we British have been taught that we have to choose between patriotism on the one hand and left-wing or radical politics on the other: that the Union Jack inherently belongs to the Conservative Party (if not the BNP) and if you are a liberal it's your duty to stay in your seat during the National Anthem. What knocks me out is the way that Woody can support the trade unions, identify with the working man, hate the cops, the bankers, the lawyers and the rich men while all the time continuing to love the United States: this land is my land. I don't think that there has ever been, or ever could be, a British equivilent of Grand Coulee Dam, probably my single favourite song by any performer. There's the deep love and affinity for place and landscape alongside a triumphant enthusiasm for the wonders of modern industry; like a good Marxist, he treats the farmers and the factory workers as the real heroes, but puts all that alongside a deep affection for good old Uncle Sam and his battle against the Nazis -- and wraps it all up in a catchy old tune about a steam train. "Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum / Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum / And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam / Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam."
Will Kaufman's is both an academic (Professor of American culture at the University of Central Lancashire) and a mean guitarist and singer. He describes his show "Hard Times and Hard Travellin' " as a "live documentary". There's a slide show; there's a lot of talk about Guthrie's life story; and there's also a lot of singing. Kaufman concentrates on the early part of Woody Guthrie's career – the time of the depression and the dust bowl migration, finishing with the composition of "This Land" in 1940. He provides a lot of historical back-story: the opening section about Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt and their varying degrees of culpability and attempts to cope with the Great Depression was invaluable for those of us whose teachers inexplicably skipped the chapter on early 20th century American history. He has a relaxed style; with well rehearsed one-liners and a deep knowledge of the subject. He's slightly apologetic about talking about American political history on Saturday night in a jazz club, but although I learned a great deal, I never felt that I was being lectured at. A lot of the time, he feels more like a story-teller than an academic speaker.
He spends a good deal of time on the appalling story (new to me) of Joe Hill, the radical song writer who was framed for murder and executed because of his revolutionary views, and performs a powerful rendition of The Preacher and the Slave ("Pie in the Sky"), Hill's most famous song. Sung in it's original form, it's an absolutely vicious bit of political satire, which Kaufman argues was a model for a lot of Woody Guthrie's political music: humour, catchy tunes, and instantly memorable political slogans.
I had entirely failed to realise how many of Woody Guthrie's songs were responses to or direct parodies of the popular music of his day. The great migrant anthem, "I ain't got no home in this world any more" is (obviously, now I come to think about it) a parody of pious hymns which tell the faithful that "this world is not my home / I'm only passing through". I've heard "If you ain't got the do-re-mi" a hundred times without understanding the specific context. (The California police and thrown up an entirely unconstitutional road block along the state line, and were ruling that any migrant who didn't have at least $50 was unemployable, and turning them back.)
Rather sensibly, Kaufman makes no attempt to impersonate Woody Guthrie: he's singing his own versions of the songs. I perhaps didn't agree with all his renditions – I'll stick with Guthrie's own jaunty, melodic version of Do-Re-Me over Kaufman's more bluesy version. But a lot of his songs are absolute eye-openers. He does a trio of songs about outlaws, finishing with a brilliant, finger picking banjo version of Guthrie's great ballad of Jesus Christ – complete with a rather pointed attempt to make the word "coward" rhyme with "Iscariot". It's a fine old melody, of course, but Kaufman really conveys the fire in Guthrie's Marxist Jesus. The story finishes, as it has to, with "This Land Is Your Land" – except that Kaufman chooses to sing the words from Guthrie's original manuscript, when the refrain was "God Blessed America For Me" -- a riposte to Irving Berlin's syrupy "God Bless America" -- an angry, ironic protest song. It's an astonishing, in-you-face restoration of a too-familiar piece; quite worth the price of admission by itself.
During a brief Q & A I asked if Guthrie was likely to have read The Grapes of Wrath – Kaufman had said that he spent more time in libraries and was better educated than he liked to pretend. The answer is that no-one really knows, but I was rewarded with a performance of the long and brilliant Ballad of Tom Joad, which summarizes Steinbeck's novel (or, arguably, John Ford's movie) in a dozen verses. "Wherever little children are hungry and starve / Wherever people ain't free / Wherever people are fightin' for their rights / That's where I'm gonna be, ma / That's where I'm gonna be."
Quite an evening. Prof. Kaufman seems to do this show all round the country (and there's a second part specifically about Guthrie as an anti-racist campaigner). If you get a chance to hear it, grab the opportunity with both hands.