The last word
Made for you and me
There is an oft-uttered cliché within the movie world: Every generation gets the Superman it deserves. This means that the times (whether placid, or hostile, or uncertain) are reflected in the kind of Superman Hollywood produces.
Similarly, albeit on a smaller scale, I wonder if each generation gets the Woody Guthrie it deserves.
If one is to believe the episode the producers of the fine PBS documentary series “American Masters” devoted to Guthrie, the answer is yes, but qualified. Guthrie himself, as is pointed out in the episode, “Ain’t Got No Home,” engaged in the construction of his persona.
This may sound as though I’m suggesting Guthrie was insincere; I’m not. Rather, Guthrie knowingly extended the narrative put forth by Mark Twain (whose very nom de plume was a purposefully rustic product of his own construction): simply, that great wonder, surprise and perhaps wisdom come from traveling the open road/river of American byways.
Along these paths, presumably, one meets the characters and hears the stories that combine to give us a portrait of authentic America: a place filled with toil, anguish, loss but also hope, possibility and redemption. And if one fudges a little here or there, in the name of artistic license, well, so be it.
After Guthrie, there came Dylan. After Dylan, Springsteen. After Springsteen, Uncle Tupelo, then Son Volt and Wilco. Who’s next? I don’t know. I just know that, inevitably, there will be a next and may likely already be a next.
What’s important to remember is that the Guthrie of the open road came after Woody Guthrie had made his way to Los Angeles and secured a place as a musician recording for radio shows that specialized in western-themed music, a variety that appealed to a far different audience than the one that would later emerge for his more rough-hewn folk ballads.
Guthrie made a decision: He decided to become the Woody Guthrie who inspired Bob Zimmerman to decide to become Bob Dylan.
In the earliest days of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival approximately 20 years ago, I remember squeezing into the Crystal Theater that still sits on the main street in Guthrie’s hometown, Okemah.
In the distance, outside the theater, stood two water towers, one reading “Hot” and one reading “Cold.” A passer-by said these were meant to symbolize the town residents’ feelings toward Guthrie — a surprise because I somehow had missed the fact that there had ever been a negative reaction to Guthrie. But as I said, to each generation, a new Guthrie emerges.
Inside the theater, there were only a handful of vacant seats. I found one near the front. On stage, musician Larry Long led Okemah schoolchildren through a song they had composed about life in “Okemah town.” As we waited for Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, to take the stage, the woman beside me explained that she was a longtime local resident. Then she began to point out other members of the audience: That woman over there? Woody lived with her family for a while, out in the barn, when things were bad. And that woman over there? That’s Woody’s sister.
To say I was stunned doesn’t begin to capture my surprise. When living in Enid, as a preschooler, I had loved singing “This Land is Your Land.” Later, at Duke University, someone tipped me to the mostly overlooked verse that says:
As I was walkin’ — I saw a sign there
And that sign said — no tress passin’
But on the other side .... it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
Not long after, I remember sitting in a small apartment wedged above the old Arnie’s Bar on Cherry Street. A local musician named Mike Naifeh, who died far too young, strummed his guitar and sang, in its entirety, the words to the Guthrie heartbreaker “Deportee.”
Guthrie, to me, had always seemed iconic, and in being iconic, he seemed distant and removed. But on that day in Okemah, I was in his hometown, sitting in his hometown movie house among his neighbors, friends and family, listening to his son sing these lyrics: “Good morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son.”
The recent announcement that the Woody Guthrie Archives are coming to Tulsa presents an opportunity to again wonder: What kind of Woody Guthrie will future generations deserve? The firebrand? The playful children’s entertainer? The artful troubadour? The man who seems to have inspired a half-century of iconic entertainers? Or something simpler: an Oklahoman who strove to make good, worked hard, played hard, saw more than his fair share of tragedy, battled illness, persevered.