Beyond Photography: Meet Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie (Public Doman Image Courtesy Wikimedia/Library of Congress)

If you walk across my camera I will flash the world your story. — Woody Guthrie

Something a bit different than the usual “Beyond Photography” post today, in that I’m only devoting it to one person: Woody Guthrie, whose centennial is today.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on the 14th of July, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. What happened after that could well have been anybody’s guess, given that Woody wasn’t one to stay in one place for very long. And all along the way there was music; other people’s at first, but before long an avalanche of his own songs that chronicled what he saw day to day. For all the songs that he recorded during his career — hundreds of them, over a little more than ten years — he also left behind notes for a thousand or more songs in varying degrees of completion.

He also wasn’t above revisiting a subject or reworking a song. “Dusty Old Dust” (originally part of the Dust Bowl Ballads collection) would reappear during World War II as an affectionate send-off for the troops who were shipping out (“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Ye”), while there’s also a pronounced similarity in the rhythm and cadence of many of his talking blues songs (listen to “Talking Sailor Blues” and “Talking Fishing Blues” back-to-back for a good example). Even his best-known song, “This Land is Your Land,” would appear with variations in its lyrics.

He also collaborated with other singers, such as Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, coming away from each with new ideas, new songs, and new ways to approach his craft (he later told Ramblin’ Jack Elliot that his playing style was essentially a carbon copy of Leadbelly’s). In their own way, those collaborations would continue long after his untimely death of Huntington’s Disease in 1967, thanks to the work of his daughter Norah and the Woody Guthrie Foundation in getting Woody’s lyrics into the hands of Wilco, the Dropkick Murphys, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics and others.

But if there’s one thing that makes Woody’s music endure more than anything else, it would be the sheer breadth of it. For someone who said that playing anything more than two chords was showing off, it was pretty obvious that Guthrie not only had smarts to spare, but also that he’d steeped himself in the music that had come before him — quite a lot of it, from traditional ballads to blues and nascent country-and-western. But he didn’t immerse himself only in music; wherever he went — and he traveled quite a bit, criscrossing the United States and also spending time during World War II in the Merchant Marine — he also got to know the people he met, incorporating their stories into his own, and into his music. He didn’t shy away from much of anything, taking on topical material (like the Ludlow massacre, the sinking of the Ruben James, and the plight of migrant workers) alongside politics, Eastern philosophy, children’s songs, and pretty much anything else that struck his fancy.

You could say that Woody Guthrie wasn’t much of a guitarist, or that he wasn’t a great vocalist, and you might even be right. But what music has in common with photography, and the reason I find myself approaching both time and again as though they’re two sides of the same coin, is that there should be a balance, a sense of harmony if you will, between what you’re trying to say and how you say it. There’s a simplicity and honesty to Woody’s work that isn’t such a bad quality to have if you’re a photographer. And a lot of the singer’s other qualities — the sense of humor, the willingness to collaborate, and an ability to get new things out of old subjects — would probably serve you well, too. But there’s another lesson lurking in all of this as well: perhaps the single most important thing to have in your kit isn’t your lenses, your flash, batteries, memory cards, air blower, or even your camera. Pack your curiosity first and you’ll be amazed at how much better the rest of your kit — whether it’s the physical one or the metaphysical one — works as a result.

My eyes has been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs has been my messages that I tried to scatter across the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and through the dark halls… — Woody Guthrie

POSTSCRIPT: What I’ve written here only barely scratches the surface. There’s a vast number of resources if you’re curious and would like to learn more.

On the Web:

http://woodyguthrie.org/ is the official website of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and probably your single best starting point. Besides having an extensive biography, it also houses media, manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, and more. A whole lot more. The Library of Congress website also has a long biographical essay by Mark Allan Jackson, available here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwgessay.html in addition to a collection of Guthrie’s correspondance here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwghome.html To learn more about Huntington’s Disease or to donate to research toward a cure, visit http://www.hdsa.org/

In Print:* Woody Guthrie penned two autobiographies that were… well, equal parts biography and shaggy dog story. There was Bound for Glory (1943; reprinted several times since, and made into a movie starring David Carradine in 1976), and the posthumously-published Seeds of Man(1976), both of which contaned a healthy amount of self-mythologizing. Subsequent biographies by Joe Klein (Woody Guthrie: A Life ), Robert Santelli (Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie ) and Ed Cray (Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie ) have had the unenviable task of separating the man from the myth, but have done quite a good job of it.

On Disc/MP3:*

But of course, beyond the thousands of words written by and about Woody Guthrie, the legacy wouldn’t be quite the same without the music. Start with The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 on Smithsonian Folkways. It’s a comprehensive collection of music recorded in the mid- to late-1940’s that has the added bonus of being thematically arranged and well-annotated, with excellent sound quality. There’s also Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, which overlaps in places with the Asch set, but it has the added bonus of a disc’s worth of material that hadn’t been previously available. Finally, if you’d like something that’s shorter but still representative, the Dust Bowl Ballads (recorded in 1940) is a fantastic and cohesive set all on its own.**

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**There’s also a set of Alan Lomax recordings from 1940 which is as fascinating as it is uneven; the sound quality is iffy in places, and the performances often aren’t as tight as later versions. With that said, it’s also a great snapshot of someone working by the seat of his pants, and leaves you with a different appreciation of Guthrie’s genius than the more polished versions that would come later. It’s out of print on disc (and terribly expensive used), but still available as an MP3 download.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Photography: Meet Woody Guthrie”

  1. The world still needs Woody Guthrie! He stood up for the little man and the working class. He fought for the rights of the common person and helped spread the ideal that this is truly “our land.” I paid tribute to the legendary musician with a portrait of Woody which you can see on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/07/woody-guthrie-centennial.html where you can drop by and let me know how Woody’s voice has spoken to you as well.

  2. Couldn’t agree more… he’s as relevant now as ever. Loved the portrait, by the way. Thanks for dropping in and commenting!

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