Woody Guthrie is a name many people will be familiar with, some being loyal disciples of arguably America’s greatest singer and writer of protest songs but most people, I would suggest, would only have a passing knowledge of Guthrie and his songs.
Will Kaufman’s show, Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin’ however – part of Belfast’s Out to Lunch festival – will have shed more than a little light on one of the greatest political songwriters ever, not only by telling us about Guthrie’s life in word and song but also by putting his life into the context of what was going on in America at the time, especially the period known as the Dust Bowl, a period of drought between 1930 and 1936 when the soil in the mid-west dried, turned to dust, and blew away eastward and southward in large dark clouds.
Hosts of farmers lost their livelihoods and had to take to the roads, migrating toward the Californian coast, where Okies from Oklahoma, Arkies from Arkansas and others from states suffering from the drought, were treated like the dirt that was in the air.
As Sis Cunningham, a contemporary of Guthrie said: “Along with hundreds of thousands of other dirt farmers, we battled crop failures, hunger, illness without doctors, hail and windstorms, gully washers, the death of livestock, fires… Now we could have dealt with all those normal disasters, but there was no way in God’s world we could escape the shark’s teeth of the bankers.”
Plus ça change …
Later Guthrie’s experience of the period would publish his collection of songs, Dust Bowl Ballads.
Someone who taught Guthrie the art of songwriting was Joe Hill, a mean songwriter and parodist in his own right and a martyr to the cause of international labour.
Kaufman told a full house at the Hill Street venue that, a year before Hill’s execution, he said that ‘a pamphlet no matter how good is never read more than once but a song is learnt by heart and is repeated over and over and over.
“He also said “take a few commonsense facts, put them into a song and then dress them up in a cloak of humour to take the dryness off it.”
Kaufman, Professor of American Literature & Culture at the University of Central Lancashire, has been one of the lucky people to have gone through Guthrie’s archives of 3000 songs, mostly unrecorded and many not even with tunes ascribed to them but he isn’t into hagiography and let’s us know where he think Woody got it wrong – like when Guthrie’s championing of “the outlaw” led him to support some very unsavoury characters, Pretty Boy Floyd amongst Jesse James.
All in all, Kaufman’s show was history lesson, concert, singalong, celebration of Woody Guthrie and paean to the working man. And great entertainment.
In one of the show’s standout numbers, Guthrie takes the The Ballad of Jesse James and changes it lock, stock and barrel to the Ballad of Jesus Christ.
There’s a lot of truth in this song, methinks ….