Song written and performed by Woody Guthrie
The study of how we acquire knowledge can be a fascinating area where philosophy and biology meet semantics, psychology and sociology. No doubt, we all remember someone, somewhere in the distant past, shoving some lyrics in our hands and commanding us to sing. Likely, we were young enough to do so without the soon-to-arrive self-consciousness which silenced so many.
While it would be easy to highlight how we learned to self-restrict our options starting at a young age, what about the discovery that more options became available? For many, many people in the U.S., one of those first songs was a verse or two of This Land Is Your Land, Guthrie’s eternal ode to what has gone into making this country what it is.
Something about “folk” music has always seemed eternal. Perhaps it is simply our effort at classifying everything. We toss guitar troubadours in with Mongolian throat singers and Peruvian farm songs because they all feel like they developed organically, as well as having their origins lost to time.
The shock comes when you discover that we actually know who wrote the song. Of course, a whole lot of mystery can be contained in a name like Woody Guthrie when you’re less than ten years old. It doesn’t sound too far afield from Johnny Appleseed, does it? And the stories about it don’t sound too different, do they? Just, he planted music notes and not apple trees. Besides, Johnny Appleseed never really existed? (A few years later)- wait, Johnny Appleseed really did exist?
I can’t imagine
what my parents made of someone like Woody Guthrie, anymore than I can fathom Will Rogers or Pretty Boy Floyd. Guthrie was only a few years older than my mom and dad, which feels inconceivable. Sure Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer were writing “standards” that became part of the American songbook while my parents lived and breathed. But no one wrote anything quite as ethereal as Guthrie.
Leadbelly and Sonny Terry (along with Robert Johnson and many, many others) certainly captured any number of songs whose origins are lost to time. They also wrote many, many fantastic songs. The same is true of a lot of Guthrie’s work, but then there are a few songs plucked from the ether.
Like some people, I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t matter who wrote the song. The words and music were sitting there waiting for someone to accept them. I dispute that with all my heart. The other lesson learned when the teacher bothers to include the songwriter’s name on the lyric sheet is that people create art, real people who lived lives just like you’ve been given a life to do something with. That is a discovery that can sustain someone for an entire life.
I would be remiss if I did not touch upon Guthrie’s death from Huntington’s disease. I lost touch with a good friend a number of years ago. Since then, he has passed from the same disorder. The CHDI Foundation supports research.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 122 more to go.
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