Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another Woody Guthrie Classic: "Pastures Of Plenty/Pretty Polly"

I guess it was Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen's "This Land" at the pre-inaugural concert that got me thinking even more about Woody Guthrie than usual. The fact that they did all the verses and gave just that bit of edginess to the song that Guthrie intended reminded me of another of his great "Dust Bowl Ballads," "Pastures of Plenty."

Protest songs are almost by definition topical, and you'd think that their usefulness would be limited to the life spans of the issues that engendered them. And yet - will "Blowin' In The Wind" or "The Times They Are A-Changin'" or "Deportee" or "If I Had A Hammer" ever truly be out of date? I doubt it. The best of these songs protest the fundamental injustices of the human condition that, like the poor as the Good Book says, are always with us. So it is, I think, with "Pastures of Plenty" - a song that, like "This Land," makes its point forcefully but without bitterness or recrimination.

Guthrie's song was published in 1941, two years after The Grapes Of Wrath, and it could be argued that the Steinbeck novel and subsequent movie created with Guthrie's song and photographer Walker Evans' pictures our enduring impression of the displacement and suffering caused by our last great economic nightmare. Though Steinbeck and Guthrie may have overstated the extent of the disaster in terms of numbers (migrants from Oklahoma and Texas to California numbered likely in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands that the book alleges), they capture and illuminate poetically the truths of the suffering as only art can.

We have an all-star lineup for Weekend Videos this week, starting with Woody's own recording:

Guthrie derived the tune from the old murder ballad "Pretty Polly." Of all the outstanding versions recorded over the decades of that song, I always thought that Ralph Stanley's blazing bluegrass banjo version, with its mournful moaning vocals, was among the best. Here's Stanley with Patty Loveless about ten years ago:

The legendary Dock Boggs, though, goes in for the traditional mountain clawhammer style:

Now, the Kingston Trio's version from Goin' Places illustrates the original group's considerable strengths of inventiveness and musicianship - the chord structure here is really unexpected, especially the Gm7th (if you're playing in Dm) that they throw in where you expect a C chord, or maybe an Am - this would be on the word "mountains" in the first verse and the same position in the rest. Dave Guard playing that jumbo 12 string is also a nice touch here:

Arlo Guthrie has an interestingly different take on the song from that of his father, one whose minor chords echo the Trio a bit more:

With all respect to Arlo, I believe that the greatest living interpreter of Guthrie's songs is Pete Seeger, who traveled with Woody and was around when many of them were written. Here is Pete not so very long ago, well on in years. This is absolutely 200 proof pure folk:

And would you believe the Jefferson Starship doing this? Believe me, this one is worth a listen - they do a fine, fine job:

Emphasizing my point above about the universality of a good protest song, here is the sadly recently-departed Odetta - doing beautifully a white migrant farmer's song,

Finally - maybe the most unique version out there. I do not know who Peter Tevis (who sings here/ was. He has a fine voice, maybe more suited to musical comedy or operetta. But the real gem here in this dramatic reading is that the number was produced and orchestrated by Ennio Morricone in 1962, or about five years before he began to score Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti" Westerns. Listen to this version and you will hear definite foreshadowings of Morricone's famous theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

There are also excellent YouTube videos of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others doing this one. Guthrie was able in this song to use his considerable poetic powers to express a passionate plea for justice that is both timely and timeless.


Pete Curry said...
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Pete Curry said...

Jim: Not sure where you got the “tens of thousands” number (a source would be helpful). But in his book, “Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination,” Charles J. Shindo says, "Only about one-third of the over one million migrants to California during the 1930s could be considered 'dust bowl migrants.’” That would peg the number of Dust Bowl migrants to California at approximately 333,000. So if Steinbeck used a figure of "hundreds of thousands" in his book (which I didn‘t find), it appears such a number would be correct. Ed Cray gives a similar number in his recent biography of Guthrie. Ditto the PBS special on the subject. Regards, Pete Curry

Jim Moran said...

Right, Pete - I meant to change that when you pointed that out before. My intent was to suggest that the size of the migration, considerable though it was, had been exaggerated somewhat by popular media. My source for the lower figure (about 90-120,000) was suspect and may have been citing an under-reporting from 1940. This was from a paper I wrote in an American lit class about 1970, so I may have some trouble locating the exact source today. I am comfortable with the integrity of your figures and will rewrite that nit. Thanks! Jim