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Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie.

Mark Allan Jackson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. x + 307 pp.

Illus. Index. ISBN 978-1-57806-915-6. US$50.00.

Mark Jackson's Prophet Singer sets out to discuss the cultural and political significance of Woody Guthrie's songs by placing them in their particular historical context, and by examining how his 'political education affects the content and attitude of his lyrics'. Each chapter covers specific historical topics related to particular songs. Chapter 1 discusses the origins of 'This Land Is Your Land', and lays out the history of the diverse versions and how they shape our understanding of the song. Chapter 2 explores how a great number of Guthrie's songs document the hardships of the white farm labourer. The third chapter traces how he ended up recording in his songs the miseries of other (non-agricultural) working-class people. Chapter 4 examines how Guthrie's social consciousness moved towards documenting other dispossessed workers, in particular the much-maligned and marginalized ethnic minorities. The fifth chapter explores a certain category of songs that celebrate mythologized outlaws who fought unjust laws. The final chapter discusses how Guthrie's interaction with various groups and ideologies (for example, Christianity and Communism) helped shape his eclectic sense of unionization, which was aligned to a 'national myth of democracy and justice'.


What Jackson's book claims to achieve, in contrast to previous scholarly accounts of Guthrie's life and music, is to examine how, as a protest singer, his lyrics capture the social history of the hard times during the dust-plagued years of the Great Depression. Jackson's work is distinct in that it introduces a literary as well as a cultural studies perspective to Guthrie's lyrics, whereas other critical monographs have included only isolated moments of lyrical analysis. Jackson's work successfully shows how they reflect his personal attitudes and the social themes they chronicle. However, despite Jackson's introductory claims, the book is at its weakest when it tries to give a literary/cultural analysis of Guthrie's music and lyrics. 'In essence, Prophet Singer discusses Guthrie's attempt to use song as a means to record the wrongs of which he knew and to point out the paths that he thought the nation could take in order to improve the lot of its underclass' -- and therein lies the modest extent of this book's argument.

Jackson does not give Guthrie's lyrics the kind of in-depth literary analysis that at times they warrant. For example, his discussion of the seminal song 'Jesus Christ' is interesting in the sense that it is categorized as an 'outlaw' song. He explains that Guthrie equates Christ to a socialist fighting for a workers' cause: 'Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land, / A hard-working man and brave. / He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor." / But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.' But the analysis could go further, to explore the link between Guthrie's continual expression of the hobo as a wandering prophet and his visualization of Christ as a fellow working migrant, persecuted for expressing the wrongs of economic exploitation. Yes, Guthrie was the 'bardic voice' of the common man, reflecting the ideals of a 'democratic brotherhood'. However, Guthrie's lyrics as poetic songs are full of literary ambiguities that deserve closer reading. On the one hand, Guthrie is suggesting that Christ was a political victim, killed by society for preaching a message. But Guthrie clearly states that Christ was betrayed by one man, a figure consistently demonized in American conservative theology: 'But one dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot / Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave.' Jackson's interpretation of this significant song is simply to defend its revolutionary stance: 'But how is the song not revolutionary? It includes a figure who urges the rich to give away their possessions to the poor.' This reading of Guthrie as 'revolutionary' typifies Jackson's approach. He rarely adopts a neutral critical voice and therefore falls into the trap of recycling the Guthrie myth. Too many of his concluding sentences on particular songs are limp, sentimental statements: 'His Christ offers a possibility of the brotherhood of man.' A fuller, more questioning analysis could have given detailed attention to the standard folk tropes that inform Guthrie's mythologizing of America and the romance of the open road, as well as noting the shifting lyrical voice within each song and its political/theological inconsistencies. Jackson does better at exploring the cultural significance of Guthrie's lyrics. However, the information presented is generalized, and probably for most Guthrie scholars already familiar. It is a shame that when it comes to writing monographs on Woody Guthrie certain American scholars feel a need rhetorically to indulge in praising a songwriter who is already over-celebrated as a national hero. What Jackson tends to express is an enduring enthusiasm for Guthrie's ability to tell stories of ordinary people's hardships, rather than explaining the more complex, sometimes contradictory, network of cultural connections that underpin the idea in the book's title, Prophet Singer. In fact, scant regard is given to how Guthrie mythologizes himself as a prophetic singing hobo: what are the cultural or folk roots that informed Guthrie's archetypal romantic wanderlust, and how does this cultivated folk persona inflect his lyrical accounts of a personally experienced social history? Jackson presumes that Guthrie's lyrics are a transparent window to a set of historical events or cultural forces. He seems to forget that Guthrie was a folk musician and that much of his lyrical rhetoric can be traced to the roots of American traditional music.


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Author:Freer, Scott
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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