Prophet Singer

Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie

MARK ALLAN JACKSON
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 316
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvfvz
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  • Book Info
    Prophet Singer
    Book Description:

    Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrieexamines the cultural and political significance of lyrics by beloved songwriter and activist Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie. The text traces how Guthrie documented the history of America's poor and disadvantaged through lyrics about topics as diverse as the Dust Bowl and the poll tax. Divided into chapters covering specific historical topics such as race relations and lynchings, famous outlaws, the Great Depression, and unions, the book takes an in-depth look at how Guthrie manipulated his lyrics to explore pressing issues and to bring greater political and economic awareness to the common people.

    Incorporating the best of both historical and literary perspectives, Mark Allan Jackson references primary sources including interviews, recordings, drawings, and writings. He includes a variety of materials from the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the Woody Guthrie Archives. Many of these have never before been widely available. The result provides new insights into one of America's most intriguing icons.Prophet Singeroffers an analysis of the creative impulse behind and ideals expressed in Guthrie's song lyrics.

    Details from the artist's personal life as well as his interactions with political and artistic movements from the first half of the twentieth century afford readers the opportunity to understand how Guthrie's deepest beliefs influenced and found voice in the lyrics that are now known and loved by millions.

    Mark Allan Jackson is currently an assistant professor of English at DePauw University. His articles and reviews have been featured inPopular MusicandSociety and American Music.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-146-0
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Prologue GIVING A VOICE TO LIVING SONGS
    (pp. 3-18)

    At more than one point in his life, writer and political activist Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (July 14, 1912–October 3, 1967) broke the world of song into distinct categories:

    There are two kinds of songs—living songs and dying songs. The dying songs—the ones about champagne for two and putting on your top hat—they tell you that there’s nothing to be proud of in being a worker, but that someday if you’re good and work hard, you’ll get to be boss. Then you can wear white tie and tails and have songs made up about you. I...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Is This Song Your Song Anymore? REVISIONING ʺTHIS LAND IS YOUR LANDʺ
    (pp. 19-47)

    After drifting around New York for almost two months at the beginning of 1940, sleeping on a succession of friends’ couches, and busking for tips in Bowery saloons, Woody Guthrie settled into the shabby surroundings of Hanover House, a hotel located near the jumble and noise of Times Square. There, on February 23, he wrote “God Blessed America,” whose six verses ended in the refrain “God blessed America for me.” Afterward, he did not show much interest in the song and did not perform it often.¹ Then sometime before the end of April 1944, when Moses Asch first recorded him...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Busted, Disgusted, Down and Out DOCUMENTING THE STORIES OF AMERICAʹS AGRICULTURAL WORKERS
    (pp. 48-92)

    Sometime after first writing “God Blessed America” in early 1940, Woody Guthrie returned to his original lyric sheet, transformed the song into “This Land Is Your Land,” and added this phrase at the bottom of the page: “All you can write is what you see.”¹ Considering his many experiences and travels, he had much to write about by the end of the Great Depression. During his youth in Oklahoma and Texas, he saw the results of boom/bust farm economies and the damage wrought by drought and dust storms. In the mid-1930s, he moved west along with thousands of migrant workers...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Poor, Hard-Working Man Blues DOCUMENTING THE TROUBLES OF OTHER AMERICAN WORKERS
    (pp. 93-126)

    Towards the end of the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie’s songs recounting the hardscrabble lives of Dust Bowlers, tenant farmers, and Okie migrants helped launch his professional music career in both Los Angeles and New York City. Additionally, in July of 1940, Victor Records released his most famous album,Dust Bowl Ballads, containing songs documenting the experiences of those planting and picking cotton in the South or Southwest or vegetables and fruit under the California sun. Having known agricultural workers since his youth, Guthrie naturally drew upon these people when he started writing songs about the struggles of America’s underclass. Then...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Skin Trouble DOCUMENTING RACE AND REDEMPTION
    (pp. 127-165)

    To gain insight into Woody Guthrie’s racial attitudes, we can look to a striking moment in his 1943 autobiographical novelBound for Glory. While riding a freight train, one bum takes offense at having to share space “with a dam nigger.” But before the young black man named Wheeler can answer the insult with blows, a white rider named Brown deals with the racist by using a few rough but pointed words. After this show of solidarity, Brown says, “I’ve run onto this skin trouble before,” then explains his views on race hate in general:

    I got sick and tired...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Stepping Outside the Law CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS IN GUTHRIEʹS OUTLAW SONGS
    (pp. 166-203)

    In early 1940, the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folksong sponsored Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin’s journey to California to collect songs from the Okies in Farm Security Administration camps there. Among various other song types, the two young folklorists noticed this group’s fondness for old and new outlaw ballads such as “Bold Jack Donahue,” “John Hardy,” and “John Dillinger.” In their essay “Ballad of the Okies,” Todd and Sonkin speculate on the driving force behind these displaced people’s admiration for law breakers:

    The popularity of the “outlaw’d” songs among the Okies might give rise to some theorizing on...

  10. CHAPTER SIX That Union Feeling TRACING A VISION OF A BETTER WORLD
    (pp. 204-252)

    Although he composed or performed “songs about robbers and about outlaws and people that try to take it away from the rich and give to the poor,” Woody Guthrie balanced these Robin Hood–flavored tales with others “that tell you why you can’t help the people that are poor just by grabbing a club or a knife or a gun and going out to be an outlaw.”¹ Reflecting on the defeat and deaths of outlaws documented in his own songs, he predicts,

    Every time a man gets disgusted with trying to live decent in the rich man’s system, and jumps...

  11. Epilogue THIS SCRIBBLING MIGHT STAY
    (pp. 253-258)

    Resurrected by the music of Billy Bragg and the voice of Jeff Tweedy, Woody Guthrie’s song “Another Man’s Done Gone” on the 1998Mermaid Avenuealbum finds the songwriter reflecting on the potential of his own work: “I don’t know, I may go down or up or anywhere / But I feel like this scribbling might stay.”¹ Here, Guthrie speculates on his own future, on the staying power of his words. It is a statement of fragile hope. Throughout his life, he documented the stories and experiences of many groups of marginalized Americans, using his artistry to illustrate their misery...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 259-292)
  13. Index
    (pp. 293-304)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-307)