100 Years of Woody Guthrie

AddThis

Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, Hale County Alabama, 1936. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

There are not many musicians who have stayed as culturally relevant for as long as Elvis, The Beatles or perhaps Bob Dylan. These musicians are known for significantly influencing the voice of American youth culture in their time. But before all these men made their way to the stage, Woody Guthrie was there, singing simple tunes with challenging messages.

So why does it seem like young people today think of Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this year, as nothing more than an old folk singer and not as one of the most important musicians who criticized the elite and empowered the working class?

“Woody Guthrie’s influence on American popular music and culture cannot be overstated,” Coleman Hutchison, associate professor of English, said. “He helped to make protest music a vibrant part of American life.” Hutchison said the song “This Land is Your Land” — written by Guthrie — remains an almost “alternative national anthem” to this day. Hutchison also mentioned that while students may ask “Woody who?,” his subtle presence in today’s culture is not to be missed.

Hutchison’s point is this: the influence of Guthrie extends far beyond the songs he wrote that became popular, and Stephen Slawek, professor of ethnomusicology and division head of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at the Butler School of Music, agreed with him, saying Guthrie’s music is “quintessential Americana.”

“I should state that I hardly ever use the word quintessential,” Slawek said. “There is something about the way Guthrie’s simplicity of musical style connects with his manner of back porch storytelling that produces a sense of everyday America. Of course, his aesthetic is rural and down-home, and he was concerned with the inequities faced by what we now call blue-collar workers.”

Hutchison described Guthrie as “such an ingrained part of American life — just like, say, George Gershwin or Hank Williams Sr. — that one needn’t know his work in order to appreciate his influence.”

Slawek agreed that Guthrie might have sneaked onto young people’s musical radar through the songs of Bob Dylan.

“[Guthrie’s] influence in music is seen both directly in the continuing interest in urban folk and old-timey music, and indirectly mediated by his number one fan, Bob Dylan,” Slawek said. “It was Dylan who brought a conscience to American popular music, but it was by channeling Woody Guthrie.”

Austin is home to many artists creating music with the same simplicity and approachability as Guthrie’s. Singer-songwriter Shakey Graves said he found an honesty he didn’t know he was looking for within Guthrie’s music.

“As the sub-woofers thump and the guitars wail, I believe that humans, young and old, will feel drawn towards his archetype,” Graves said. “[They will be drawn] towards the man with the guitar. His body of work reminds me that there was a time not so long ago when musicians were the jukebox, the news anchor, the political pundit, the hero and the villain.”

Now could be just the time, politically, for Guthrie to make a comeback among young people.

Many have been drawing the parallels between Great Depression America and America today. “The issues he sang about are still here, as millions of Americans continue to struggle in their lives and the income of lower and middle-class Americans has stagnated for the past decade,” Slawek said. “Not to mention the right-wing attacks on unions and the reduction of social services as a result of shrinking state budgets. Conditions might indeed be ripe for the emergence of another troubadour willing to tell it like it is.”

The hope of Slawek’s next Woody Guthrie is compelling. People today crave the authenticity and simplicity that Guthrie represented in his music. It will be up to the individual to rediscover the old Guthrie or encourage the newer musicians who note Guthrie as an influence. Either way, his simple, sticky melodies will likely never be far from mind.

Printed on Thursday, September 6th, 2012 as: Guthrie's impact remains intact