This year sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, on 14th July 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was one of the most influential figures in popular music, inspiring Bob Dylan and a generation of topical singer-songwriters in the 1960s and even having an influence on punk – Joe Strummer modelled himself on Guthrie, asking friends to call him Woody as a teenager.
Guthrie was the original alternative musician. His most famous song ‘This Land is Your Land’ was written in 1940 as a response to the number one hit of the day, Irving Berlin’s patriotic hymn ‘God Bless America’. His alt. credentials were underlined by his determination to write about the lives of ordinary working people and to oppose racial discrimination. On his guitar he painted the words ‘This machine kills fascists’.
Woody’s career as a musician can be divided into two phases. The first western phase saw him living in Oklahoma, Texas and California during the Great Depression. It was during this period that he composed his most famous songs, mostly dealing with the problems faced by farm labourers forced off of the land by dust storms and bailiffs, migrating to California to seek seasonal work as fruit pickers.
The second phase of his career began in 1940, when he moved to New York City. Here he recorded his dust bowl ballads and hooked up with musicians such as Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. New York inspired him to new heights of song-writing, but most of the material he composed in the 40s was never recorded, as topical songwriters became suspect in an America that was undergoing a communist witch-hunt.
By the end of that decade, Woody was beginning to experience the early symptoms of Huntington Disease, a degenerative condition of the nervous system for which there is no cure. By the mid-50s, he was no longer able to perform and spent the rest of his life in hospitals. When he died in 1967, he left thousands of unrecorded songs in manuscript form. What he didn’t leave behind were the tunes.
Like myself, Woody couldn’t write musical notation. When he wrote a song, he kept the tune in his head. As a result, when he died, the tunes for the songs which he hadn’t had time to record were lost forever. And there were thousands of them. It’s estimated Woody only managed to record 10% of the songs he wrote in his lifetime.
It was this treasure trove of songs that Nora Guthrie discovered when she founded the Woody Guthrie Archives in the early 1990s. She’d always known that they were there, in boxes at her mother’s house while she was growing up, but she never realised how many there were and how varied their subject matter.
Nora was concerned that, over the years her father had become a two dimensional figure, known only for ‘This Land is Your Land’ and his influence on Bob Dylan. The unrecorded songs, she felt, offered us a three dimensional vision of her father as more than just a dust bowl balladeer. So became determined to bring these songs to a greater audience.
I first met Nora in July 1992, at a concert in Central Park, New York, to commemorate Woody’s 80th birthday. She began sending me lyrics of her father’s unrecorded songs, encouraging me to write new music and make a collaborative album. Her initiative finally bore fruit in 1997, when I got together with Wilco in Chicago and Dublin, where we recorded nearly 50 ‘new’ Woody Guthrie songs.
The first collection of those songs, ‘Mermaid Avenue’ – named for the street in Coney Island where Woody lived with his family – was released in 1998. A second collection ‘Mermaid Avenue Volume II’ was released in 2000. Both albums were nominated for Grammy awards.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth, Nonesuch Records will be releasing ‘Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions’, a four disc set, comprising of remastered versions of Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II as well as a new collection of 17 songs from the original sessions, ‘Mermaid Avenue Volume III’. The fourth disc will contain ‘Man in the Sand’, Kim Hopkins’ 1999 film, which documents the collaboration between Woody, Wilco and me.
As part of this year of celebration, I will be doing a number of shows which will focus on the legacy of Woody Guthrie as expressed through the Mermaid Avenue songs. I’ll be playing acoustic instruments and singing from the book of lyrics which I compiled from the archives and used during the sessions, quoting from Woody’s handwritten notes that are often tagged onto the manuscripts.
I hope to be able to announce details of these Woody100 shows in the coming weeks.