My history hero: Woody Guthrie

"The fate of the poor in the Great Depression made a deep impression on him, and it was society's lack of fairness that drove much of what he did in his career, inspiring many of his finest songs": Billy Bragg tells York Membery why Woody Guthrie is his history hero

Photo of Woody Guthrie c1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie became a radical American singer-songwriter. Best known for writing ‘This Land is Your Land’, his songs about migrant workers of the Great Depression earned him the nickname ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’. Associated with leftwing causes throughout his life, in the 1960s he inspired a new generation of folk singers, most notably Bob Dylan. Married three times, he fathered eight children before dying at the age of 55 from complications arising from Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurological disorder.

When did you first hear about Woody Guthrie?

In my teens, before punk, I was obsessed with Bob Dylan, and got into singer-songwriters who were like him, including Woody. At the time, though, it was virtually impossible to get his records where I grew up in Barking, Essex. So I ended up learning his songs through osmosis – that is, by listening to other singers like Ry Cooder, who’d covered songs of his such as ‘Vigilante Man’, which really made me sit up and listen.

What kind of person was he?

He was a difficult man, in some respects. He was hard to live with, and he didn’t have great relationships with his wives. He could also be a bit of a toerag. At the same time, he was a hugely influential artiste and songwriter, and had a real ear for the language used by the common man – migrants much like his family, from

Oklahoma and other plains states, who were forced to migrate to California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Their fate made a deep impression on him, and it was society’s lack of fairness that drove much of what he did in his career, inspiring many of his finest songs.

What made him a hero?

His willingness to stick to his beliefs and not become co-opted by the mainstream. Also, the fact that he’s the father of my tradition: the protest singer-songwriter. He was on the cusp of a time – the dawn of ‘popular music’ – when a lot of old American folk music was dying out. He could be considered the last of the Elizabethan minstrels, because he learned songs from his grandmother, songs such as ‘Gypsy Davy’, variations of which first appeared on song sheets in Jacobean England. Having said that, you could also argue that he was the first punk rocker – he really didn’t care about material goods, and lived life the way he wanted to.

What was Woody Guthrie’s finest hour?

It would have to be his song ‘This Land is Your Land’. He wrote it in response to Irvin Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’, which topped the US charts in 1940. ‘This Land’ – a song that belonged to everyone, about a land that was “made for you and me” – is undoubtedly the one for which he’s best remembered. One of the things that gives the song such power is that it talks about the greatness of America, but also its problems – and to do that in a song that’s become so widely loved, an alternative national anthem, is quite something.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I don’t admire the way he treated his wives. I don’t understand how that fitted in with the principles he held.

Can you see any parallels between Guthrie’s life and your own?

We’re both communicators, and use any medium we can to get our ideas out there. Mind you, when people ask me to go along and do something “in the spirit of Woody Guthrie”, I draw the line at some of the things he did – like the time he peed off the balcony [of a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City] on to the people below!

If you met Guthrie today, what would you ask him?

I’d love to know what he made of today’s America – and with a president-elect like Donald Trump, you can’t help wishing that Woody was around today. Funnily enough, he actually wrote a song about Trump’s father, Fred – a landlord who Guthrie felt had treated some of his tenants pretty badly – called ‘Old Man Trump’. Woody was obviously ahead of his time!

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Billy Bragg’s album with Joe Henry, Shine A Light, is out now. The duo tour in January – for details see billybragg.co.uk