Woody Guthrie: “Hard Travelin’”

The photos in the clip above were taken for the Farm Services Administration by John Vachon.

This is Woody Guthrie’s centennial year, which is unfortunately appropriate considering the drought that is decimating large portions of the country.Yesterday, The New York Times ran a commentary on Guthrie, one of the two or three most iconic musicians in American history.

Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service. “For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,” Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent stamp.

Will Kaufman’s book “Woody Guthrie, American Radical” tried to set the record straight last year. The sentimental softening and warping of Woody’s reputation began early, even as he was dying, in the 1960s. But under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante — a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery. He was a man of many contradictions, but he was always against the rich and on the side of the oppressed.

American Memory has a huge archive and biographies and other materials are at PBS and woodyguthrie.com.

Most important, of course, is the music: Here is a nice cover of This Train is Bound for Glory and Guthrie’s versions of The Ludlow Massacre, Talking Dust Bowl Blues, The Grand Coulee and, of course, This Land is Your Land.

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