The “Dust Bowl Troubadour” Woody Guthrie is best known for his oh-so American ode “This Land Is Your Land,” but for the most casual music fan history all but forgotten his immense influence on folk and protest songs.
American folk music like Guthrie’s is admittedly hard to digest when taken in alongside modern music. His voice is raspy, the instrumentation is typically just a few chords on an acoustic guitar, and the recordings have a soft fuzz to them that give away their age as a sort of luddite music.
But that doesn’t mean the topics of Guthrie’s songs have no hold on modern times. Ever the populist, Guthrie’s songs are for the people, of the people, and not the One-Percenters. They’re not tunes of lavish living or idealizing a fictional or fantastical lifestyle. And though times have changed, many of his messages still hold true today.
Here are five of Woody Guthrie’s songs that are just as relevant today as they ever were:
“This Land Is Your Land”
Guthrie’s most popular song has become a sort of alternative American national anthem, but with this attention the song has become misrepresented over time. As elementary school choir instructors teach the song, it often ignores the last three verses, which turn the focus of the song from an ode to our country’s beauty to a statement of who the land truly belongs to.
These so-called “lost verses” start, “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said ‘Private Property’ / But on the back side it didn’t say nothin’ / This land is made for you and me.” In recent years, these lines have been powerfully reinserted into the song, thanks to the Occupy Movement and musician Tom Morello, as a cry for social equality and restoring power to America’s people.
With capital punishment ended in conservative Nebraska, the entire country is taking a look a the death penalty in a new light. On Guthrie’s straight-forward social commentary piece “Slip Knot” (also known and performed as “Hang Knot”) he sings, “I don’t know who makes the law for that slip knot / But the bones of many a men are whistling in the wind / Just because they tied their laws with a slip knot.”
“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)”
Possibly one of Guthrie’s finest songs, this Dust Bowl ballad written about the hard times of drought and dust storms in the 1930s could well apply to California’s current drought or an apocalyptic (but possibly realistic) take on global warming and the planet’s future.
“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”
Though never recorded by Guthrie himself, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has a long legacy of covers under a variety of names, including artists include Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton, among others. Guthrie was originally inspired to write this song by an airplane crash that killed 28 migrant farm workers being deported back from California to Mexico, but the newspapers only listed the names of the 4 Americans onboard. What exists now is an ultimate ballad to our nation’s ongoing, multi-generational battle over immigrant rights.
“Pretty Boy Floyd”
Though genres have changed, songs of outlaw living never seem to go out of fashion. Guthrie’s ballad of bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd depicts the story of a Robin Hood-like hero, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. And though this sort of timeless story still resonates just fine today, what is particularly notable are the final verses of the song. As so many Americans have faced foreclosures on their homes in recent memory, and other hardships they did not deserve, it’s hard to not find relevance in Guthrie’s lyrics here:
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen / And as through your life you travel / Yes, as through your life you roam / You won’t never see an outlaw / Drive a family from their home.”