Woody Guthrie at 100
Thursday, March 15, 1:30pm, Austin Convention Center Room 18ABC
Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain./I throwed a bucket o' dirt in her face just to bring her back again. – Woody Guthrie, "Dust Pneumonia Blues"
Woody Guthrie had a sophisticated understanding of America. It was an education he earned empirically – through looking into a million faces and walking a thousand roads. Anybody with a pair of boots and a Bob Dylan CD can tell you that Guthrie came from Oklahoma, and much has been made of his time in California and New York, but it was his tenure in Texas that alchemized him as a songwriter and, in part, inspired the advent of modern protest music.
"I think his Texas history gets short-shrifted," says Douglas Brinkley, author, historian, and professor at Houston's prestigious Rice University. "Everybody talks about Woody Guthrie in Oklahoma, but his career as a troubadour began traveling around Texas."
It was in Pampa, an oil town in high plains Texas, where Guthrie experienced the Black Sunday dust storm and where he cut his teeth in the Corncob Trio and the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. Brinkley points to his trips from the Permian Basin to the Rio Grande Valley and up to East Texas as significant.
"It was his travels all around the state that inspired him to think about how people could be helped more and gave him his social conscience," posits Brinkley.
Guthrie's daughter and guardian of his collections, Nora, views her father's lyrics as an account of his everlasting road trip.
"Woody was a journey," she says. "He is Oklahoma. He is Texas. He is California and he is New York. All his writing and lyrics are a journal of those places, but the pivotal point was Texas. That's where Dust Bowl Ballads came from, his first record and his first writing."
While music fans will always speculate what Lennon or Tupac would say about current issues, Guthrie's prolific songbook of more than 3,000 lyrics offers specifics. In them, Brinkley has found a unique context for Woody: "He's the protest poet to Texas land abusers." Guthrie's lyrics, Brinkley points out, contain warnings about big agriculture and oil companies torturing the land, and common people being exploited by huge corporations.
"Woody Guthrie is the perfect spokesperson for a lot of worries that rural Texans should have about the way things are happening right now."