'Pastures of Plenty' Original Recordings 1940-1947
Writer Robert Shelton once called Woody Guthrie \awry-witted word-volcano", an alliterative phrase that would have no doubtpleased the legendary American folk singer, whose shingle might also bear thewords prophet-singer, fascist-killer, folk-poet, talker, hummer, whistler,dancer, rambler, fighter, and all-time balladeer hero. Because of his long boutwith Huntington's disease, which eventually killed him in 1967 at the age of55, Guthrie spent almost as much time out of the folk music scene as he did init. But during the 1930s and '40s, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, with his shock ofunruly hair and beat-up guitar with "This machine kills fascists" scrawled onit, laid out the blueprints for what would become the so-called urban folkmusic revival of the 1950s and '60s, a social and musical movement that hecould only observe from the distant vantage point of a hospital bed.
There was probably no performer who better embodied thespirit of what America was all about during the Great Depression. During thisdarkest period in American history, Guthrie exuded optim-ism, humour, andempathy for the average working American, as songs and poems flowed from his mindlike a raging river. Woody Guthrie not only wrote about America during theDepression, 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 "itchingheel," never content to stay in one place for long; seeing America and writingabout it. He didn't just write songs; he also wrote poetry, lengthy letters tofamily and friends, and essays about his travels in numerous articles and bookssuch as Bound for Glory.
Guthrie began writing about the same time another Americanfolk hero, Will Rogers, died. Guthrie picked up where Rogers left off, speakingup and fighting for the workers and the disenchanted everywhere; his voicejoining those of other political activist/singers including Pete Seeger, CiscoHouston, Josh White, and Lee Hays.
Much of Woody Guthrie's musical inspiration came fromphonograph records. Although he was not an adept composer, Guthrie based hissongs on traditional ballads and recordings by early country music performers,most notably the Carter Family. It was one of the unlikeliest songwritingcollaborations ever; the staid, conservative, Appalachian-bound Carters and thedust-bowl bred Communist-leaning free spirit from Oklahoma.
On 26 April 1940, Guthrie made his first commercialrecordings for RCA Victor in New York City. The album, which would be calledDust 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 "thedustiest of the dust bowlers") he wrote in his own speaking style, completewith Southwestern expressions, slang, and Guthrie's own concocted jargon. Hedescribed his music as "Oakie songs, Dust Bowl songs, Migratious songs, aboutmy 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 thesame time."
Talking Dust Bowl Blues is a humorous commentary onGuthrie's life as a migrant Okie, in which he leaves his dust blown farm, fillshis Ford with "gas-eye-leen," and heads west to California for betterconditions. Guthrie's "talking blues" was derived from a series of recordingsmade in that style beginning in 1926 by hillbilly singer Chris Bouchillon.
Blowin' Down this Road was adapted from "Goin' Down ThisRoad Feelin' Bad", a traditional song that can be found in country, blues,folk, and bluegrass traditions. Guthrie wrote Do-Re-Mi in 1937 when, afterarriving in Los Angeles, he found that the Los Angeles Police Department hadset up illegal roadblocks on the major highways at the California border toturn back those whom they thought were "unemployable vagrants". It was theracism and class distinction experienced during this period that helpedinfluence Guthrie's left-leaning political beliefs, which would eventuallyresult 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 TheGrapes of Wrath. Guthrie had seen the motion picture adaptation of the book andwrote the song "because the people back in Oklahoma haven't got two bucks tobuy the book, or even thirty-five cents to see the movie, but the song will getback to them." Guthrie's version was seventeen stanzas, too long for a single78 rpm side, so Victor decided to use both sides of the record to get it alldown.
Dusty Old Dust, Guthrie's masterpiece about the dust stormsin the Southwest in the mid-1930s, was one of his first compositions, writtenjust prior to his leaving Texas for the west coast. The melody for the verseswas borrowed from "Billy the Kid" by Carson Robison, but Guthrie wrote thechorus himself. It later became better known as "So Long, It's Been Good toKnow Yuh".
In 1944, Alan Lomax introduced Guthrie to Moses Asch, whosetiny Asch Records label on West 46th Street in New York was recording Americanfolk music. Asch immediately recognized Guthrie's genius and, over the next fewweeks, made hundreds of recordings of Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, LeadBelly, and others on the New York folk music scene. Another talking bluesnumber, Talking Sailor, extolled the National Maritime Union (NMU) and wasrecorded on 19 April 1944, with Cisco Houston, Guthrie's buddy in the merchantmarines, accompanying him on guitar.
Guthrie's first album for Asch also included Gypsy Davy, awesternized version of "The Gypsy Laddie" (Child No. 200), "Jesus Christ" (setto the tune of "Jesse James"), whom Guthrie depicts as simply a unionorganizer, and New York Town, Guthrie's wry observations on first arriving inthe Big Apple, with music inspired by blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.
In May 1941, Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville PowerAdministration (BPA) to write songs for a film to promote public power anddevelopment of the Columbia River in Oregon. Within a month, Guthrie hadwritten 26 songs, of which three were used in the film, which didn't getreleased until 1949. Grand Coulee Dam (first spelled "Coolee" on the original Asch78) was written to the tune of "Wabash Cannonball" and included a litany ofplace names, deliberately included by Guthrie to attract workers to the song.The song contains some of Guthrie's most vivid word pictures, including theline "in the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray."
The BPA project also resulted in Pastures of Plenty (sungmodally to the tune of "Pretty Polly"), in which Guthrie dreamed of governmentsponsored irrigation providing water and electricity for migrant workers.Talking Columbia Blues is another wry commentary in the talking blues style inwhich he predicts everything would be made of plastic someday and that thecountry would be better off if it were run not by pol-i-tish-uns but byee-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 AmericanFolksay featuring traditional ballads and songs brought to New York by Guthrieand other members of the Almanac Singers. Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty LittleFeet is of Scottish origin, based on "The Lass of Roch Royal" (Child No. 76).Jimmie Rodgers' Mule Skinner