Somebody Shoot at Me!

Ian Sansom

  • House of Earth: A Novel by Woody Guthrie
    Fourth Estate, 234 pp, £14.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 750985 0

To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 a concert was held in Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,’ Obama said, truly, after and Sheryl Crow had busked their way through Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, with Herbie Hancock noodling on piano; and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC had pounded out ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’; and Garth Brooks had gurned through ‘American Pie’; and so on and so on. Perhaps the only truly radical note in the concert was struck – or at least attempted – by Pete Seeger, resplendent in plaid shirt and woolly hat, leading the crowd in America’s unofficial national anthem, ‘This Land Is Your Land’, including the infamous, often unsung verse suggesting that all property is theft:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

And so an angry song of protest and a hymn to trespass became part of a celebration of the American Dream: you don’t have to be Gramsci to recognise cultural hegemony at work here.

Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ – originally titled ‘God Blessed America’ – in February 1940, in response to the sentiments of Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’:

Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer …
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

Goddamnit: in the end, everything gets alloyed in the melting pot, including Guthrie, all-American hero. ‘For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,’ Arlo Guthrie announced in 1998, when his father’s image was put on a 32 cent stamp.

Not much taller than 5’7’’, rake-thin, beady-eyed, haunted by family tragedy, and suffering in later life from Huntington’s disease, Guthrie casts a shadow that grows ever longer and stranger. Last year, on the hundredth anniversary of Guthrie’s birth, the singer Billy Bragg – born in Essex, resident in Dorset, and about as far removed from the wind-blown, dirt-road, footloose, boxcar ramblin’ origins of Guthrie as is possible – released the third volume of his recordings of Guthrie’s previously unpublished lyrics and songs. But this was only to be expected: unlikely as it seems, Bragg, along with fellow singer-songwriter Steve Earle, has become an official keeper of the Guthrie flame. The true sparks from the sacred fire are perhaps to be found elsewhere. Maybe in the film Big Easy Express, directed by Emmett Malloy and released last year, which followed gentlemen folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, the Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show and alt-rock hipsters Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros as they travelled together by train from Oakland in California, ending up in New Orleans with an inevitable hootenanny-style rendition of ‘This Train Is Bound for Glory’. The song is actually an old gospel standard, although strongly associated with Guthrie (his autobiography, chronicling his own criss-crossing of America, was entitled Bound for Glory at the suggestion of his editor; Guthrie had wanted to call it Boomchasers). ‘It’s the same track that Woody Guthrie rode on,’ Malloy explained in an interview, ‘and it probably didn’t look a whole lot different’ – except for the catering crew, the lighting rig and Jake Gyllenhaal hopping on board for the ride.

Or perhaps the Guthrie hand of fate falls now on Jake Bugg, a teenager with dead eyes, rudimentary chords and an unexpected UK number one album, who may be the closest thing we have to a homegrown dust-bowl troubadour: he’s from the east Midlands. (Typical lyrics: ‘I go back to Clifton to see my old friends/The best people I could ever have met/Skin up a fat one, hide from the Feds.’) And at the other end of the cultural spectrum there are the super-slick Toy Story movies, with Sheriff Woody, a pull-string cowboy apparently named after the African-American actor Woody Strode, yet who bears more than a passing resemblance to Guthrie in his hillbilly heyday, when he worked as a professional entertainer on KFVD radio in Los Angeles, singing ‘Lefty Lou from Ol’ Mizoo’ with Maxine Crissman. ‘I’d like to join your posse, boys,’ Pixar’s Woody squeaks, ‘but first I’m gonna sing a little song.’

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