Troubadour is a French word that means a poet who writes verse to music. The word also implies hard traveling. Chances are if you have something to say with a song, moss won’t be growing under your feet. Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was quintessentially a troubadour of American music. He sang organic story-songs about everyday events from town to city, for the people and to the powers that be. His influence is legendary, though it might seem quaint in today’s din of self-reverential brand building.
Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, OK, in 1912. In Guthrie’s childhood, Okemah was a small farming town caught up in the changing times. By the early 1930s, severe drought and a failure to use countering farming techniques brought hard times to Okemah and towns like it across the wide North American prairies. It led to an exodus of people – Dust Bowl refugees - leaving the devastation in search of opportunity out West.
As one of those people who went west in search of a better life, Woody Gutherie told the story of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in songs like “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” He wandered, working thankless odd jobs, penniless, family broken, and observing the growing scale of injustice caused by the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These concerns would remain centered in his work as his reputation for being a truth-teller of colloquial tales grew. It’s not to be sentimentalized: Woody Guthrie articulated the American experience of his era perhaps better than any poet, and certainly better than any musician of his day.
Guthrie was at a creative peak from the mid 1930s through the 1940s. You can get a good sense of living history through songs like “Pastures of Plenty,” “The Jolly Banker,” “1913 Massacre,” “Do Re Mi,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Working Hard Blues,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “The Sinking of the Ruben James” and more. His most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” has a realistic shot of replacing the current national anthem. His best songs still hold a rare power and urgency; conceivably as necessary today as back when.
Woody Guthrie is on the short list of the great 20th Century Songwriters. With all due to respect to Jimmie Rogers, I would argue Guthrie’s range of styles, his presence of character and ultimately his cultural sophistication would make him the originator of the singer-songwriter concept. Of course, “singer-songwriter” became something entirely different – a marketing term - after Bob Dylan and the mass media got involved, but Woody Guthrie is THE original when I think of that term.