About this Recording
8.120742 - GUTHRIE, Woody: Pastures of Plenty (1940-1947)



‘Pastures of Plenty’  Original Recordings 1940-1947


Writer Robert Shelton once called Woody Guthrie “a wry-witted word-volcano”, an alliterative phrase that would have no doubt pleased the legendary American folk singer, whose shingle might also bear the words prophet-singer, fascist-killer, folk-poet, talker, hummer, whistler, dancer, rambler, fighter, and all-time balladeer hero. Because of his long bout with Huntington’s disease, which eventually killed him in 1967 at the age of 55, Guthrie spent almost as much time out of the folk music scene as he did in it. But during the 1930s and ’40s, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, with his shock of unruly hair and beat-up guitar with “This machine kills fascists” scrawled on it, laid out the blueprints for what would become the so-called urban folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s, a social and musical movement that he could only observe from the distant vantage point of a hospital bed.


There was probably no performer who better embodied the spirit of what America was all about during the Great Depression. During this darkest period in American history, Guthrie exuded optim-ism, humour, and empathy for the average working American, as songs and poems flowed from his mind like a raging river. Woody Guthrie not only wrote about America during the Depression, he lived it. Born in the oil-boom town of Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie was an incurable rambler with, as Pete Seeger called it, an “itching heel,” never content to stay in one place for long; seeing America and writing about it. He didn’t just write songs; he also wrote poetry, lengthy letters to family and friends, and essays about his travels in numerous articles and books such as Bound for Glory.


Guthrie began writing about the same time another American folk hero, Will Rogers, died. Guthrie picked up where Rogers left off, speaking up and fighting for the workers and the disenchanted everywhere; his voice joining those of other political activist/singers including Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Josh White, and Lee Hays.


Much of Woody Guthrie’s musical inspiration came from phonograph records. Although he was not an adept composer, Guthrie based his songs on traditional ballads and recordings by early country music performers, most notably the Carter Family. It was one of the unlikeliest songwriting collaborations ever; the staid, conservative, Appalachian-bound Carters and the dust-bowl bred Communist-leaning free spirit from Oklahoma.


On 26 April 1940, Guthrie made his first commercial recordings for RCA Victor in New York City. The album, which would be called Dust Bowl Ballads, was to include an essay about the songs written by Guthrie, who received $300 for the session. In the notes, (he described himself as “the dustiest of the dust bowlers”) he wrote in his own speaking style, complete with Southwestern expressions, slang, and Guthrie’s own concocted jargon. He described his music as “Oakie songs, Dust Bowl songs, Migratious songs, about my folks and my relatives, about a jillion of ’em, that got hit by the drouth, the dust, the wind, the banker, and the landlord, and the police, all at the same time.”


Talking Dust Bowl Blues is a humorous commentary on Guthrie’s life as a migrant Okie, in which he leaves his dust blown farm, fills his Ford with “gas-eye-leen,” and heads west to California for better conditions. Guthrie’s “talking blues” was derived from a series of recordings made in that style beginning in 1926 by hillbilly singer Chris Bouchillon.


Blowin’ Down this Road was adapted from “Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad”, a traditional song that can be found in country, blues, folk, and bluegrass traditions. Guthrie wrote Do-Re-Mi in 1937 when, after arriving in Los Angeles, he found that the Los Angeles Police Department had set up illegal roadblocks on the major highways at the California border to turn back those whom they thought were “unemployable vagrants”. It was the racism and class distinction experienced during this period that helped influence Guthrie’s left-leaning political beliefs, which would eventually result in his joining the Communist Party.


The two-part Tom Joad (written to the tune of “John Hardy”) was Guthrie’s outlaw ballad about the fictional hero of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Guthrie had seen the motion picture adaptation of the book and wrote the song “because the people back in Oklahoma haven’t got two bucks to buy the book, or even thirty-five cents to see the movie, but the song will get back to them.” Guthrie’s version was seventeen stanzas, too long for a single 78 rpm side, so Victor decided to use both sides of the record to get it all down.


Dusty Old Dust, Guthrie’s masterpiece about the dust storms in the Southwest in the mid-1930s, was one of his first compositions, written just prior to his leaving Texas for the west coast. The melody for the verses was borrowed from “Billy the Kid” by Carson Robison, but Guthrie wrote the chorus himself. It later became better known as “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”.


In 1944, Alan Lomax introduced Guthrie to Moses Asch, whose tiny Asch Records label on West 46th Street in New York was recording American folk music. Asch immediately recognized Guthrie’s genius and, over the next few weeks, made hundreds of recordings of Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Lead Belly, and others on the New York folk music scene. Another talking blues number, Talking Sailor, extolled the National Maritime Union (NMU) and was recorded on 19 April 1944, with Cisco Houston, Guthrie’s buddy in the merchant marines, accompanying him on guitar.


Guthrie’s first album for Asch also included Gypsy Davy, a westernized version of “The Gypsy Laddie” (Child No. 200), “Jesus Christ” (set to the tune of “Jesse James”), whom Guthrie depicts as simply a union organizer, and New York Town, Guthrie’s wry observations on first arriving in the Big Apple, with music inspired by blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.


In May 1941, Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to write songs for a film to promote public power and development of the Columbia River in Oregon. Within a month, Guthrie had written 26 songs, of which three were used in the film, which didn’t get released until 1949. Grand Coulee Dam (first spelled “Coolee” on the original Asch 78) was written to the tune of “Wabash Cannonball” and included a litany of place names, deliberately included by Guthrie to attract workers to the song. The song contains some of Guthrie’s most vivid word pictures, including the line “in the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray.”


The BPA project also resulted in Pastures of Plenty (sung modally to the tune of “Pretty Polly”), in which Guthrie dreamed of government sponsored irrigation providing water and electricity for migrant workers. Talking Columbia Blues is another wry commentary in the talking blues style in which he predicts everything would be made of plastic someday and that the country would be better off if it were run not by pol-i-tish-uns but by ee-leck-trissity. Rambling Blues, one of Guthrie’s most autobiographical songs, borrows part of its melody from Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.”


Three songs come from an Asch 78 album called American Folksay featuring traditional ballads and songs brought to New York by Guthrie and other members of the Almanac Singers. Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet is of Scottish origin, based on “The Lass of Roch Royal” (Child No. 76). Jimmie Rodgers’ Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8) was described by Guthrie as a migra-tory work song, appropriate for his union-leaning interests. The Biggest Thing is a nonsense song also known as “I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago” that was heard by Oscar Brand as a vaudeville song in Manitoba, Canada when he was growing up. Although its origins are unknown, Brand believed it to be too sophisticated to be traditional. The lyrics were updated to include union references and target Adolf Hitler and the axis powers.


The Ludlow Massacre took place on 20 April 1914 and described the horrifying event that occurred when Colorado coal miners, in their attempt to unionize, were brutally attacked by the state militia, who deliberately shot and burned twenty of their group, a dozen of whom were women and small children.  Guthrie would later use the same melody for his children’s song, “Clean-O.”

The 1913 Massacre refers to a Christmas Eve party in Calumet, Michigan for another group of organizing miners. In the crowded Italian Hall, someone yelled “fire!” causing a mass panic that resulted in the death of 74 people (59 of them children). Mother Ella Reeve Bloor, a political organizer and founder of the American Communist Party, was an eyewitness to the tragedy and wrote about it in her autobiography. Both Ludlow Massacre and 1913 Massacre were issued on an Asch 78 set entitled Struggle.


This Land Is Your Land was originally titled “God Blessed America”. Guthrie’s original intent was not to celebrate the beauty of America’s natural landscape but to protest against privatization of land by the American government and reclaim it for the American worker. After its publication, the offending verses were removed and the sanitized version has since become a patriotic standard. The melody was adapted from the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire”, which in itself came from a Baptist hymn called “Oh My Lovin’ Brother”.


After he entered Greystone Hospital in New Jersey in 1956, Woody Guthrie became the touchstone of the urban folk revival. His disciples have included Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, besides countless other would-be folk poets who were inspired by Guthrie’s self-described work as America’s “word singer.”


– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)

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