Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie.
In Prophet Singer, author Mark Allan Jackson, an Assistant Professor in English at DePauw University, offers a literary and historical analysis of the lyrics to Guthrie's major songs, tracking Guthrie's growth as a songwriter and commentator on the social injustices of his day. The first of a series of essays focuses on the genesis of Guthrie's most celebrated song, "This Land Is Your Land," and the controversy surrounding the two more radical verses of the lyrics that were mysteriously dropped by some performers in the 1950s (including Guthrie himself ). Jackson then covers songs addressing agricultural and other workers, racial discrimination, outlaws, and the growth of the union movement.
Jackson asserts that Guthrie grew from writing about personal experiences to developing increasing empathy for the struggles of other workers and ethnic groups, thus showing a maturing political consciousness. Guthrie's early and personal Dust Bowl ballads progressed to songs about events and movements that he only read about in newspapers or heard about through movies, other songs, or on the radio. He was able to see himself in other's shoes, and eventually was able to take intensely personal stories and use them as the basis for political action.
Throughout Prophet Singer, Jackson focuses on Guthrie's lyrics and makes little or no mention of the musical aspects of these songs. He makes no apology for this focus, stating that Guthrie "did not do much in the way of composing his own original music." Of course, many folk performers of Guthrie's era (and indeed later singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan) have borrowed traditional melodies to create new songs. This time-honored tradition does not in anyway dilute Guthrie's claims to be a songwriter as opposed to a lyricist. Nonetheless, Jackson asserts that "Guthrie's lyrics have an inherent power and purpose" and compares the songwriter to Homer, among others. While no one can argue that Guthrie was often a fine lyricist, there may be some who find the separation of the lyrics from their musical presentation to limit what could have been a richer analysis.
The heart of the book is the chapter on "This Land Is Your Land." Jackson accurately relates the performance history of the song, showing how Guthrie himself evolved the song's text over time and in different recorded performances would often vary individual lyrics or add or drop entire verses. Guthrie's own self-published songbooks and later commercial publications also offered various versions of the song. While Jackson's description of the evolution of the song is basically evenhanded, he implies that the loss of the "radical" final verses of the song--critiquing private property and asserting strongly the narrator's independence--was due to fear on the part of Guthrie and those who followed him, including his acolyte Pete Seeger. Guthrie dropped the verses in his 1947 recording of the song, the only recording that was widely available during the 1950s. However, it is equally plausible to say that because only the one recording without the "radical" verses was available, other performers were simply unaware of Guthrie's more radical intentions. And, even if we accept Jackson's belief that the song was self-censored, such censorship was far from unusual in a period when folksingers were losing jobs and recording contracts due to the Communist witch-hunt.
Further, Jackson's lyrical analyses often come across as academic fact checking. Rather than illuminating Guthrie's intentions, he often simply checks whether Guthrie got the basic facts correct, noting of course that songwriters often take liberties when recasting real events into song. This fact checking can sometimes lead to unintentionally humorous results. For example, in "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," Jackson comments on two verses that criticized Dust Bowl era preachers for using the storms as a means of filling their churches. Guthrie ironically noted that the preachers' call that "this may be the end" was often followed by assuring their parishioners that they could get "a cut rate on salvation and sin." Jackson is quick to point out "Although unfair to accuse all southwestern preaches of cashing in on the fear the storms aroused, some churches did do a thriving business ..." In this and many other comments, Jackson seems to miss Guthrie's sense of irony--or at least underestimates the reader's ability to understand the difference between comic exaggeration and statement of fact.
Because Jackson focuses on the lyrics of the songs, he does little to place Guthrie in the tradition of folk or country songwriters of the twentieth century. He does trace some of the other recorded performances that Guthrie undoubtedly knew--such as Andrew Jenkins's recording of "Billy the Kid" or Bob Miller's "Eleven-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat"--but he limits his discussion to how Guthrie took lyrical ideas from these sources. He notes that Guthrie borrowed Jenkins' melody for his celebrated song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," but also performed Jenkins' original version and then adapted Jenkins' song to make it more sympathetic to its outlaw hero. The implications about how a songwriter works, and the many off-shoots that a single source might inspire, are left unexplored. It would be interesting to compare Guthrie's adaptations of earlier sources to other songwriter's working methods, such as Jimmie Rodgers, who was a great influence on Guthrie.
Finally, there are some misstatements that are due to poor editorial work that are distressing to see in any publication. Guthrie's self-published Ten Songs by Woody Guthrie is mysteriously referred to variously as Ten of Woody Guthrie's Twenty-Five Cent Songs and Ten Twenty-Five Cent Songs by Woody Guthrie. The cover of this mimeographed pamphlet does indeed trumpet its twenty-five cent cost, but no one would interpret this as being intentionally part of its title. Jackson also asserts that Pete Seeger's American Favorite Ballads songbook was "little-known;" however, the book is well-loved among folk revival performers and has remained in print for over 50 years.
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|Publication:||Society for American Music Bulletin|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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