Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Woody Guthrie by Brian Young

Woody Guthrie

Another frequent contributor to What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen was Brian Young. In the 70's he played guitar and sang with Belfast's pride and joy, Rudi, and their single "Big Time" in 1978 was the first release on Good Vibrations. Another EP on Good Vibrations and two singles on the Paul Weller funded Jamming label later, in 1983 they'd split. Since then there's been Station Superheaven, The Tigersharks, The Roughnecks and currently The Sabrejets ("Revved Up Rockabilly From Belfast!").

We first met when I interviewed him in 1983 on Rudi's last tour (supporting The Jam) and stayed in touch through the life of WANWTTS when he wrote on Marc Bolan, Johnny Thunders, Prince and this cool introduction to Woody Guthrie which appeared in issue 2 in 1984.

Brian Young

This Machine Kills Fascists

“I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you are born to lose. Bound to lose. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or that. Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.”

Fine words indeed....but who said them?

If you guessed Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Pete Townshend, John Lennon or any other self-proclaimed “spokesman for a generation”, you'd be wrong, and how!

The correct answer is one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and before you ask what kind of haircut he had or what label he's on, stop....'cause he's been dead almost twenty years and spoke these words decades earlier. If it's any help, he was better known as “Woody”, and if all that means to you is either a Bay City Roller, a cartoon woodpecker or an equally cartoon Rolling Stone, you've got one helluva lot of catching up to do....

Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, strictly small-town USA. He grew up the hard way – his father's business went bust; three times the family's home was destroyed, once by a cyclone and twice by fire, in one of which his sister was burned to death. His mother was suspected of starting these fires, and was later institutionalised with Huntington's Chorea, a rare and particularly debilitating disease for which there is no cure and which rots both the brain and body from within, resulting in a slow, painful death...though not before she tried to set fire to her husband with a blazing oil lamp. As a result, he too was hospitalised, leaving Woody to fend for himself at 15. He lived rough, eating only when he could beg a few cents for a meal, in return for the pictures and cartoons he drew in the bars, saloons, pool halls and dives he frequented. He played the harmonica, constantly pumping out renditions of the ballads and songs that his family and friends had taught him, picking up new songs at every opportunity ....he soon found out that they paid better than cartoons, and it was only a matter of time before Woody got himself a guitar...taking his wide repertoire on the road, playing in the “barbers shops, at shine stands, in front of shows, around the pool halls...(he) rattled the bones, done jig dances, sang and played with negroes, indians, whites, farmers, town folks, truck drivers and with every kind of singer you can think of.”

But on his travels, Woody saw, heard and experienced things that sickened and outraged him. This was America entering the depression, and it soon became obvious that all was not rosy in the land of the free The Wall Street crash and the collapse of traditional farming in the dust bowls, sent families and whole regions off in search of work; once proud men, now humbled, begging and scraping to make even the most meagre of livings. Shanty towns sprang up anywhere work was rumoured but jobs were few and far between, and pay and conditions were appalling. Supply simply outstripped demand and if you didn't like it, you didn't work...somebody else would. Unscrupulous bosses could hire and fire at will, and any complaints meant you lost not only your job but often your teeth as well, as discipline was enforced by fist or bullet. The American dream had gone sour...

In this climate of discontent, Woody began to adapt the traditional songs he played, to reflect the hardship and deprivation he saw all around. “All you can write is what you see”. He played anywhere and everywhere, on street corners, in migrant camps, on radio and at union rallies. He sang the only way he knew – from the heart, wielding his guitar like a Tommy gun, spitting out defiant and proud lyrics of struggle, determination and hardship, reflecting the hopes and fears, trials and tribulations of those around him. Skinny, scruffy and unprepossessing, he sang in a rough raspy “ash can” voice, but with immeasurably more sincerity, warmth and emotion than a whole battalion of Hollywood crooners. After all who wants to hear about “the moon in June” or “Big Rock candy mountain” when you're homeless, jobless and your family haven't eaten in three days? Woody wrote thousands of songs, ballads, blues and even children's' songs, all laced with an inimitable candour, poignancy and compassion that belied their humble origins. Above all, he wrote songs of hope, pride and dignity even (and especially) in the face of the very greatest diversity.

“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world. And if it's hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it's run you down and rolled over you, no matter what your colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and your work.”

Woody knew which side he was on - “I aint a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.” He scribbled “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” on his guitar, and when the war finally hit America, went off to war to prove it. After the war, he continued much as before, fighting injustice and inequality through his music, at every opportunity.

But by now, his incredibly turbulent private life was beginning to take its toll. (I won't dwell on this here, though it does make interesting reading – among his less savoury habits, he tended to abandon family and friends on the least pretext; he was often paralytically drunk and he even went to prison for writing some particularly obscene letters....I never said he was a saint!) and after several major domestic upheavals, Woody was finally shattered that he had inherited Huntington's Chorea from his mother.

Ironically, during the last few years of his life, America suddenly “discovered” Woody Guthrie, and he achieved a widespread popularity as he lay paralysed and useless; he was suddenly hip, and too old and too ill to do anything about it. Intellectual America flocked to his bedside, and hordes of young men followed his angered suit, usually ripping him off lock stock and cracker barrel, even down to his harmonica stand (Hi Bob) and setting in motion the folk boom in underground America of the sixties. Even this side of the Atlantic, Donovan adopted Woody's slogan, THIS MACHINE KILLS on his guitar; tellingly, he omitted FASCISTS....

In 1998, Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded an album, Mermaid Avenue, using lyrics written by
Woody Guthrie. This is one of the songs on that album.

Now, in 1984, the age of the micro chip, where nothing dates faster than yesterday's music, every word Woody wrote still holds true, and with the wheel about to turn full circle, as a new generation of angry young gravediggers turn to the past for their, er, inspiration...acoustic guitars and twopenny halfpenny “protest” songs at the ready, let's spare a thought for Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Check out his back catalogue and smile, secure in the knowledge that regardless of the dictates of the media, of fashion or style, Woody Guthrie will always be with us, his guitar spitting fire and his words spraying bullets ready to rip the soft white underbelly, and send a shiver of fear down even the most complacent of spines, and the most sanctified of consciences....eat lead suckers!

Brian Young
Belfast 1984

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