Woody Guthrie

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

(Photo Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three)

Pokey LaFarge seems to live in the world in which a performer whose name is Pokey LaFarge would not elicit any arched eyebrows. But alas, despite his faded sepia album cover, zoot suit and slicked back hair, he lives in a time when Katy Perry is striving for her fifth number-one single in a year.

It could just be that fact that makes his second album, Middle of Everywhere, recorded with his band, the South City Three, sound so refreshing. He combines the classic folk of early Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, the swing music of the early ‘50s along with the early traces of true rock ‘n roll. This is Americana at its purest.

On the jumpy “Drinkin’ Whisky Tonight,” there’s a devilish excitement about passing and downing a bottle of Jack in the melody and in LaFarge’s voice. He shows a giddy romantic side on “Head to Toe,” telling his loved one, “I just say in my way that I love you from head to toe.” The songs never fail to amuse, such as the well-crafted lyrics that evoke heartbreak and passion or the small details in the music, like the playing of a washboard.

LaFarge sings in a strong high-pitched vocal that has a styling that lends itself to the narratives. He also plays a mean harmonica. The band deserves special mention for its supple and full harmonies. The horns pop. The drums cackle. The strings zing.

Of course, there’s a nostalgia factor in listening to Pokey LaFarge. It harkens back to the illusion of a pure America, which any good “Mad Men” fan knows never existed. While maybe our county’s social and cultural norms were never so great, Middle of Everywhere shows that music sure was and, in this case, still can be.