NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Woody Guthrie: Hall of Fame Bound?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Marty Stuart was up in the offices the other day, giving a guided tour of an exhibition of his photographs on display here. The tour itself was fascinating, and Marty’s tales of the stories behind the photographs were riveting. But a remark he made based on one of the pictures is really sticking with me. It was about a photograph he had taken of Woody Guthrie’s fiddle.

“Woody Guthrie needs to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Stuart said. “I mean the guy wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Pretty Boy Floyd,’ and if that ain’t two damn good country songs, I don’t know what is.” But, he added, Nashville is not into Woody Guthrie. He’s right on all counts. Woody Guthrie does belong in the Country Music Hall of Fame. But he’ll have a hard time getting there, even though he’s already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame.

The Country Music Hall of Fame does not elect members; it runs the Hall of Fame. Hall of Famers are elected by the Country Music Association. The Country Music Hall of Fame itself is to be commended for hosting a series of Woody Guthrie seminars and programs earlier this year. But getting Woody Guthrie through the panel of CMA electors may be a bit of a strenuous hike.

Guthrie, for those whose notion of country music history comes mainly from IMAX films or Republican fund-raising events, not only wrote those two above-mentioned songs, but he also penned “Pastures of Plenty,” “Oklahoma Hills,” “Philadelphia Lawyer,” “Deportees” and hundreds of other songs. But mainly, Guthrie is important beyond the songs for his role as musical-social activist, for helping establish the tradition of musical social commentary and for inspiring other generations of such socially conscious singers and songwriters as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg and Steve Earle.

There may well be a furor among Country Music Hall of Fame voters because many of them will point out that Guthrie was a Communist, and Communists have never been big in Nashville or in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s true that Guthrie was sort of a Communist, but Woody wasn’t actually much of a Communist. He wrote a column for their newspaper and used their rallies to present his songs but never joined the CP. He said that he was not a member of any “earthly organization.” He was mainly branded a radical because he was a populist. He unstintingly championed the working poor: the migratory Okies, the textile mill laborers, the factory workers and Mexican migrant workers. He was hated by industrialists and big business because he spoke up for workers’ rights, and that makes you some kind of radical even to this day. But, he also spoke out and sang out against the Nazi Fascist regime before and during World War II. He had the message “This machine kills Fascists!” inscribed on his guitar.

Long before downloading songs would become an issue, Guthrie made his songs accessible to the public. He sent out songbooks to radio listeners who requested them, and he included this copyright disclaimer:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

Guthrie detractors point out that some of his melodies owed debts to other sources — for example, his song “This Land Is Your Land” sounded remarkably like the Carter Family’s “Little Darling, Pal of Mine.” (The Carter Family’s A.P. Carter himself generously borrowed words and melodies and entire songs from numerous sources.) On the other hand, if we insist on total song purity and on guaranteed song originality, then all of the music halls of fame will be pretty much emptied out.

A possible Guthrie controversy with the Hall of Fame also has to do with the distinction between what was called folk music and what was labeled hillbilly music and what is now considered country music. There is a consensus in the music community that Guthrie is America’s most influential and important folk artist ever. But country purists and folk purists don’t agree. As Bill Malone points out in his history Country Music U.S.A. , Guthrie “occupies an unusual position in American country and folk music and is admittedly difficult to categorize. He began as a hillbilly singer with strong traditional roots and advanced to the position of America’s most revered urban folk singer and writer.”

There are people enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame who haven’t written — or sung — any songs at all. Not that they don’t belong in there, because they do, based on their other contributions. But a talent as great as Guthrie’s deserves to be recognized, too. If Woody Guthrie is not country, then who is?

As Stuart said, “He needs to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame — along with that fiddle.”

Suggested Reading:
• The definitive work on Guthrie is Woody Guthrie: A Life (Delta, paperback) by Joe Klein. The author was a colleague of mine at Rolling Stone years ago, and I can vouch for his doggedness and accuracy in researching and writing this exhaustive work. Interestingly, after this book, Joe quit writing about music and turned his attention completely to writing about politics. His most famous book since then has been Primary Colors, which was about the presidential campaign of a very Bill Clinton-like candidate. Joe published this bestseller with the author listed as “Anonymous,” which helped create a media stir. Media and gossip mavens in New York and Washington were abuzz with trying to discover who the Washington insider was who wrote it. They were all very disappointed to learn that it had been written by just a writer.

Suggested Listening:
• The best currently available presentation of Guthrie’s music is the 4-CD package Woody Guthrie: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings). This has 105 rousing Guthrie performances, from “This Land Is Your Land” to “Car Song” to “Union Maid” to “Cocaine Blues.”
• A very good and unlikely updating of Guthrie is Mermaid Avenue (Elektra/Asylum). The British folk singer and activist Billy Bragg gained access to Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics, and he and American alt-country group Wilco set music to 30 of them on these very lively and contemporary-sounding CDs (There’s also a Vol. II).