He inspired generations of singer-songwriters from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. Now on display in New York City: a new exhibit devoted to the legendary Woody Guthrie.
He sang a song of America … of its destitute and its dispossessed, of its hungry and poor and rootless. He sang of miners and sharecroppers and factory workers; of fathers who couldn't feed their children; of farmers whose soil had turned to dust.
He sang, in short, about us, in all our perseverance and possibility, said "Sunday Morning" host Jane Pauley.
I ain't got no home, I'm just a-roamin' 'round,
Just a wandrin' worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore. …
Was a-farmin' on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker's store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.
From "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore" by Woody Guthrie
"Guthrie's political writing is urgent and topical," said Philip Palmer, curator of the exhibit, "Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song," at the Morgan Library & Museum. "And I think people will see a lot of resonances with the issues we're unfortunately still dealing with today."
Among the treasures on display: Guthrie's New York address book; his famous New Year's resolutions for 1943 (among them, "Play and sing good," and "Dance better"); as well as the original handwritten lyrics of his most enduring song, "This Land Is Your Land."
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me
Palmer said, "He wrote the song, in some ways, as a satirical response to a very popular song at the time, 'God Bless America' by Irving Berlin, especially the Kate Smith performance of that song. It bothered him that the song was so unapologetically patriotic and uncritical of the problems he saw in the country firsthand as he was traveling around."
But not all his songs were so serious, such as "Car Song." "He has a funny, funny and creative side as well, and a lot of that comes through in his writing for children."
"A lot of these songs are very funny and playful and are full of puns. And so, that's a side of Guthrie, I think, that people are not as well aware of," said Palmer.
Guthrie's heyday was relatively brief. He would spend the last 13 years of his life confined to hospitals, suffering from Huntington's, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease.
When he died in 1967, at just 55, he left behind some 3,000 songs – songs whose plain words and simple melodies tell the story of a nation.
That old dust storm, well, it blowed my barn down,
But it can't blow me down,
And it can't blow me down
That old wind might blow this world down,
But it can't blow me down,
It can't kill me
From "Dust Can't Kill Me" by Woody Guthrie
For more info:
- "Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song" at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York City (through May 22)
- Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, Okla.
- Photo used with permission from the Woody Guthrie Archive
Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
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