Nora Guthrie: Tourniquet in Cheek

More music history with SXSW Music panelist Nora Guthrie

Nora Guthrie, named after Woody's mother
Nora Guthrie, named after Woody's mother

South by Southwest Music panelist Nora Guthrie – coming tomorrow to the print edition of the Chronicle – watches over one of America's most valuable resources: the Woody Guthrie songbook. As foundation director of his archives, she’s collected, researched, and promoted the work of her father (1912-1967), with whom she's totally kindred.

Austin Chronicle: Do think your father's time here in Texas was more significant than people realize?

Nora Guthrie: That's why I’m doing a show in Texas and I'm not talking about South by Southwest. I'm doing another show in Pampa, Texas, which is where Woody lived. In a nutshell, Woody was a journey. He is Oklahoma. He is Texas. He is California and he is New York. All of his writing and lyrics are a journal of those places, but the pivotal point was Texas. That's where Dust Bowl Ballads came out of, his first record and his first writing.

AC: How did he make it here?

NG: Lets start from the beginning. When he was 12, his mother was institutionalized and the family broke up. Different kids went to live with different relatives and his father is the one who went to Texas to live with his sister who would take care of him. Woody was homeless. He lived in a gang house with a bunch of street kids in Okemah until he was about 18.

Then he followed his father to Pampa. You have to put it in context because the Oklahoma story was childhood – not doing anything but growing up and having a lot of tragedy. It was when he got to Pampa that things started to come together for him.

AC: What kind of show are you putting on in Pampa?

NG: I'm doing a show called Woody's Road to Pampa. It will be following a big show in Tulsa on March 10th, a big tribute concert at the Brady Theater with John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, and a whole bunch of other people. The next morning we're taking a road trip, basically doing what Woody did in the Thirties. We're taking the route he took to join his father.

So we'll be doing a concert with Arlo [Guthrie] for free. We'll also be awarding Pampa with a historical plaque that we'll give to the Mayor of Pampa or whoever's there as a statement of the significance of this small Texas town in Woody Guthrie's career. It was there he experienced the dust bowl. It was there that he had his first two bands: the Corn Cob Trio and the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce band.

They were basically bandstands. They played for socials, barbecues, and church things, but it was through his association with them that he started getting the courage, the creativity, and the inspiration to start writing his own songs. This was 1935 in Pampa. That's when the dust bowls are at their peak in Texas and that's why he wrote Dust Bowl Ballads, which he didn't perform with those bands there, but soon after he went to Los Angeles and got a job on the radio performing his Texas material.

AC: He had to step out of that situation to reflect on it?

NG: No, I think it has to do with age, because we're talking about someone who is 23 years old. He started writing the way young people write: a goof, a lark, or this or that – not seeing yourself as a composer, but kind of a garage band attitude. When he gets to L.A. and gets a capital "J" job as a performer, he's doing traditional songs. He's doing socials, dance songs, things like that.

Then he gets the courage to start inserting his own material that he's been writing in Pampa and on the journey to Los Angeles into his shows. Then what happened was, the radio station got such a huge response, letters and calls, that he continued writing and performed his songs more often.

AC: Does Pampa embrace Woody today?

NG: They've always had a small group of people and I mean small, like 10, who really held his history together. Others may have forgotten about it or tried to forget about it. I don't know because I've never been to Pampa, but I've been in touch with them over the years and they started a museum that used to be a drugstore where Woody worked as a teenager. He actually signed his name in the cement there. Like a kid, he wrote "Woody." It was called the Harris Drug Store and they turned it into the Woody Guthrie Center or something like that. But it's never really kicked off even though the Dust Bowl Ballads are written about people in that town.

AC: What's the most relevant Woody Guthrie song in 2012?

NG: On the Woody Centennial website we have a song of the day and, so far, we try to align them with the news.

AC: Which must be easy because his songs are so topical.

NG: Exactly, I just read the newspaper and go, “Oh yeah, that's what Woody wrote about in such-and-such.” Whether it's a mining disaster or a flood or somebody fell in love, he wrote 3,000 songs on every topic you can think of.

Today, by coincidence, it was Woody's song “Mean Talking Blues.” I was freaking out. You have to go listen to it. It's a line-by-line definition of what a mean person is. “I'm happy when you loose your home,” and “It made my day when you couldn't organize your union, 'cause I hate unions.”

It's one line after the next and it's so funny and tourniquet in cheek. It's typical of Woody to write and ode to everybody and this ode was to mean people.

AC: Woody's legacy has flourished in the 45-plus years since his death. Why does he have so much traction? Why is it that new generations keep discovering him and identifying with his music?

NG: Because they were all forced to learn "This Land is Your Land" in first grade. The mass public wouldn't know anything about Woody if it wasn't for that song.

AC: But his work runs so much deeper than that.

NG: He's 360 degrees. You can enter from so many angles. You can get to Woody through Dylan. You can get to him through Wilco. You can get to him through Jimmy LaFave. You can get to him through Dolly Parton. You can get to him through studying about World War II or studying about dust bowls. I think he has so many access points and that probably has to do with why everyone knows his name.

There are all these spokes in the wheel and he's the hub. I know from working in the archives for the past 20 years. I get punk rockers coming to me and they found Woody through Joe Strummer. Then you have Dolly Parton fans who found Woody through Dolly Parton songs. Johnny Cash is an access point because they knew each other and Johnny comes out of the same exact family tradition that Woody did: the Carter family.

Then you have the blues people, people who know about Lead Belly. Then you have unions who have writings and songs about union organizing and they find Woody through that. I think it has literally to do with just the number of access points.

"Talking Mean Blues"
By Woody Guthrie

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Nora Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Lafave, Wilco, the Carter Family, Dust Bowl Ballads, John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash, Joe Strummer, Lead Belly

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