When I first heard Woody Guthrie's music - I would have been seven or eight, maybe - he was still alive, living out the last ten years of his life institutionalized with Huntington's, a horrible progressive disease that robbed him of control of both his mind and body. Dylan visited his idol frequently in the hospital, but although Guthrie at first seemed to like his young admirer, he sometimes also raged at him, and supposedly on the last visit, did not recognize him.
But I was writing about how I came to know Guthrie's music. My mother had a set of Smithsonian records with the strangest and most wonderful music: "Ol' Groundhog," "The Bold Fisherman of Plimlico," Leadbelly, Doc Watson, and Woody Guthrie. My sister Nettie and I would listen to these in Fort Pierce, Florida when we got tired of making creepy-crawlers and watching a bizarre little slide-show device that played us enormously abridged and dumbed-down versions of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo. (Do you remember those, Nettie?) We learned a lot of the songs without even knowing what they were about, except there was an unmistakable wry wit, even a kid could get:
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see,
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't go the do-re-mi.
Guthrie's singing style also made Nettie and me smile - he refused to dress up a song with any vocal antics. In his most famous song, he doesn't draw out the last syllable of "New York Island" to make it rhyme with "this land is my land," but just pronounced it plain flat "eyelin'." Ditto, for "Gulf Stream water." Water didn't get any additional emphasis or drama because it came at the end of the line, "wah-ter," he pronounced it the same way any Oklahoma boy would asking for something to drink: "wadder."
A couple of years later, living in Sandersville, Georgia, I found "This Land is Your Land" printed in my textbook, and was surprised to discover it even had an author, because I'd assumed it was a song that had always existed, or at least that it was coeval with the founding of the nation, that Washington and Adams had commissioned it the same day they signed the Declaration of Independence. It was printed alongside "God Bless America," another song I learned is of surprisingly recent origin, which had famously been belted out by Kate Smith who walloped every note like a singing steamroller. I liked that song too, as different as it was from Guthrie's. Both very patriotic, but neither was really suited to fireworks. With Guthrie, skyrockets would have been incongruous. With Kate Smith, superfluous.
About this time, folk music was a hot ticket. My mother played us Odetta, Pete Seeger, and more Doc Watson. My brother Homer had some Kingston Trio albums, and Nettie and I were big into Peter, Paul, and Mary. I never got Dylan, and I still don't get him. I didn't like Johnny Cash until much later. Somewhere around Joan Baez, I began to lose interest in folk music. Baez had the voice of an angel, but she lacked the humor that made me like Peter, Paul, and Mary - my favorite songs of theirs were always minor gems like "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog." Looking back on it, Baez marked the arrival of political correctness which is a poison tablet. (Guthrie's son wrote an interminable but hilarious song, "Alice's Restaurant," which I also love.)
That's what I liked about Guthrie. He was successful, but he was still the outsider. Political correctness was represented by Kate Smith's anvil-chorus rendition of "God Bless America." You could tell by the way Guthrie didn't tart up his singing by stretching that last syllable of "island," he was genuine, even sincere, but he wasn't earnest.
Here's a bit of out-and-out socialism from "This Land is Your Land," but delivered with such a grin and a wink, even the man who posted the property would have to smile. You can just picture Guthrie singing it, with a cigarette hanging on his lower lip, his cap pushed back, that leprechaun face:
Woody Guthrie, we still love you. Happy birthday.