July 17 – Asked to name Oklahoma’s great singers and musicians, a whole array of names immediately spring to mind.
Some of them are so familiar that they are only known by their first names. Yes, I’m talking about Garth and Reba.
For many Oklahoma music fans, including me, another Sooner State native falls into this category – Woody Guthrie. Born just up the street in Okemah, Woody is still revered by many as the father of modern folk song and among the earliest singer-songwriters.
It seems I’ve known Woody Guthrie for as long as I can remember. Although he was ill and no longer performing at the peak of America’s great folk music boom of the early to mid-1960s, he was already a hero to some of the most prominent artists who rode that wave of popularity. mass, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Born in Okemah on July 14, Woody would have celebrated his 110th birthday on Thursday, which reminds me of Woody and his immense contributions to American song. had been written by an Oklahoman – then learning all the other memorable songs Woody had written.
In addition to his songs, Woody also wrote newspaper columns, poems and books, including his captivating autobiography “Bound for Glory”. After the first chapter which begins in the 1940s, the book looks back at Woody’s childhood growing up in Okemah, then continuing when he moves to Texas. Woody also shares that he drove boxcars and traveled to California during the Great Depression – singing, writing and learning new songs along the way.
It is sometimes reminiscent of the novel “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. While Steinbeck’s novel is about the fictional Joad family who moved from their home in Sallisaw, Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression, Woody writes about what he really went through around the same time in ” Bound for Glory”.
It’s also the book that inspired a young Bob Dylan to learn a plethora of Woody songs and travel East so the then-unknown Dylan could meet his hero – a goal he achieved when he visited Woody in a hospital in New Jersey.
Woody had been hospitalized after being arrested for alleged vagrancy by New Jersey. police He was admitted to a mental hospital where he was called delusional by his doctors when he told them he was a singer and songwriter, as well as the author of several books. It took Guthrie’s wife, Marjorie, to convince doctors that Woody was indeed a recording artist, songwriter, and author.
Woody’s books included “Born to Win”, a collection of poems, stories, essays, song lyrics, letters, entire diaries and other writings put together. I used to have a copy of the book, which worked well despite – or maybe because of – the different formats it included. I remember Woody recounting how he came to title the book “Born to Win” after hearing the story of World War II soldiers being transported to a beach for a landing amidst hostile fire while listening Ted Daffan’s Texas hit song “Born to Lose”.
This stirred Woody, who argued that a song with such a negative message should definitely not be played to soldiers going into battle, inspiring him with the title of his book, “Born to Win”.
Incidentally, esteemed singer Ray Charles had no qualms about “Born to Lose”, recording the song on his breakthrough 1962 album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” and scoring a hit with the song. .
As for Woody’s songs, he wrote and recorded a number that continue to resonate today. Here are some of my favorites and I’ll save his best known for last:
– ‘Oklahoma Hills’ – This is a song Woody wrote with his cousin, country singer Jack Guthrie, which Jack scored a hit with in 1945. Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys scored another hit in 1961, ending the song with the Coda “Boomer Sooner” played on steel guitar. Although I’ve heard Thompson’s version, I learned the song from a recording by Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, on Arlo’s “Running Down the Road” album.
Michael Parks, the actor who starred in the television series about a wandering motorcyclist named “Then Came Bronson” is among many other artists who have also cut a version of the track.
“Oklahoma Hills” was also ruled by the Oklahoma State Legislature during Oklahoma’s official folk song
I used to think the lines to the song “Way down there in the Indian nation, riding my pony on the reservation” were poetic license from Woody, because at the time no one thought that there were no more reservations in Oklahoma. Turns out that’s just one more thing Woody was right about.
—”Ramblin’ Round” — How not to include the song that inspired the title of this column? Again, I learned this from an album of Woody’s song Arlo. For some of my own years of hiking, I’ve taken some of the lyrics to heart: “Ramblin’ round your city. Ramblin’ round your town. I always see a friend that I know, when I go ramblin’ round, boys , when I go ramblin’ round.
— “So long, good to know you” — Originally titled “Dusty Old Dust”, this is another one of my favorite Woody songs. It must not have been easy to write a humorous song about something as devastating as the Dust Bowl, but Woody does it with this song, which also encompasses several other themes, such as love and marriage.
I once read that Woody told a young Dylan that it’s easy to find a melody by writing a song. Find another song, just change a few things and you have something new. It’s a writing method that Woody obviously used on “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”, as the verses use the melody of the traditional cowboy ballad, “Billy the Kid”.
– ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ – This is a song I first heard on the Byrds’ country music album called ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’. Roger McGuinn sings a direct country-folk version, with fiddles and banjos on the song which includes a line referencing the shore of the Canadian River.
Woody’s song about the famous Depression-era outlaw depicts him as a kind of Robin Hood, leaving bags full of groceries on the doorsteps of hungry farmers. It also includes one of my favorite lines: “As you travel through this life, you will meet funny men, who will rob you with a sixgun or with a fountain pen.”
— “Pastures of Plenty” — This is one of Woody’s most heartbreaking ballads about the plight of Oklahomans who left their home state during the Dust Bowl: We walked a hot, dusty road. From your Dust Bowl and west we drove. And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold.
— ‘This Land Is Your Land’ — Woody’s most famous song has been sung around a million campfires, on countless stages and even at a presidential inauguration. It contains some of his most poetic lines about America.
Oh yes, the previously mentioned part about Woody being arrested for vagrancy when the police failed to recognize him as one of the most gifted songwriters the nation has produced can be seen as something that wouldn’t happen in the modern age – but it does.
On July 23, 2009, a 24-year-old police officer noticed a man dressed in sweatpants and a blue jacket walking in heavy rain along a residential street in New Jersey, looking at homes along the street.
She stopped and asked him for ID. He said he didn’t have any with him. When she asked the man his name, he told her – but either the officer didn’t recognize the name or he didn’t believe the man. When she asked him where he lived, he told her that he was on tour and that he was staying at the Ocean Place Resort and that he was going to perform a concert that evening.
She got the man into the back seat of her cruiser. To check his story, they drove to the hotel where the man said he was staying – and where an undoubtedly puzzled tour manager told police their drenched passenger was indeed Bob Dylan, ready to perform that night with a couple of well-known opening acts, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.
And what was Dylan doing wandering the streets of New Jersey in the pouring rain? Searching for the house where a young Bruce Springsteen wrote the rock classic ‘Born to Run’.
Contact James Beaty at [email protected]