I just finished reviewing the book Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) for the journal Studies in Popular Culture. I heartily recommend it to any Woody Guthrie fan and to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the American working-class in the first half of the twentieth century.
The book also tells the story of an important chapter in the evolution of American popular music. Guthrie’s career spans the period of the origins of the recording industry, which corresponded with the origins of music copyright laws. Guthrie was a transitional figure—the last of the breed of folksingers who functioned as documentary historians and even journalists. Before the rise and explosion in popularity of the mass media, news of catastrophic events like floods, storms, mining accidents, train wrecks, shipwrecks, etc., was often preserved and disseminated by traveling troubadours who told the stories in song. Such “Event Songs” were common in early recorded country music. Guthrie was a compiler of songs as well as a songwriter, and the folksongs he collected in his travels include numbers later attributed to A.P. Carter and Hank Williams
Though Carter is credited with the copyright for most of the Carter family songs, he probably composed very few if any of them. Because copyright laws were new, the first to register a song owned it. The treasure trove of traditional songs free for the picking is part of what inspired Victor Records to send Ralph Peer on his talent search through the deep South, during which both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered in Bristol in 1927. Late in his life, when Carter was criticized for what was by now considered plagiarism, he replied, “I may not have wrote all those songs, but I wrote them all down.” This response not only shows the humor associated with country music culture, but also reflects the oral nature of traditional folk music. Writing the songs down was indeed a major turning point.
Guthrie also wrote many songs down—both songs he himself composed and songs he collected in his travels. Sometimes he combined the two activities by adding to traditional songs new verses that express Guthrie’s sympathy for the travails of working people, or by borrowing a traditional tune to tell a new story.
Guthrie’s best known song, of course, is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote as a protest song—an effort to deconstruct the message of sappy patriotism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s conviction was that the blessings of America were built on the backs of the working class, who weren’t exactly sharing in the benefits of those blessings. Guthrie was frustrated that most of the protest content was dropped from the song as it spread and grew in popularity, and that “This Land” became almost as much a patriotic anthem as the song Guthrie was trying to protest. The irony of singing about “the dust clouds rolling” in the third verse of the popularized version of “This Land” as if the dust clouds were part of America’s bounty has apparently been lost on millions of schoolchildren and their songleaders.
The story of “This Land” teaches another important lesson about folk music—a category that sometimes includes country music. The measure of folk music is not in the intentions of the artists/producers, but in the music’s appropriation and use by the folk.