Friday, February 26, 2010

Woody Guthrie: "Hard, Ain't It Hard"

Some really unfortunate things tend to happen when a real, three-dimensional person is transformed into an icon, the worst of which is that what makes that person unique and/or interesting and/or admirable (or despicable) is lost in a haze of sloppy, sentimental admiration. We Americans, long regarded as the wide-eyed innocents of the developed world, are especially guilty of transforming our very real heroes into very unreal semi-divinities. We can't tolerate the dark shades of gray that color the realities of every one of us. We implicitly insist that our heroes be flawless, and in so doing we lose sight of who they really were. Worse, if our plaster illusions are shattered, we often turn on those very heroes and demonize them, or at least reduce them in our esteem and tag them with a perpetual sense of our disappointment that they failed to be as perfect as we wanted them at be and as we ourselves are not.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, was by most measures the greatest of our presidents - but he was afflicted by the worst depressions of any of our leaders, and those depressions drove him at times to vindictive rage against those he thought let him down. He blundered at times both politically and militarily. He married for political clout and not love and suffered through a painfully stiff and unfulfilling marriage. But no one wants to hear about those things. We want Lincoln the Icon - wise, gentle, homey, humorous, and strong. He was all of these, truly - but what is impressive about him is that was able to demonstrate those iconic qualities in the face of massive personal failings that conspired to prevent him from doing so. Lincoln is a hero in spite of who he was, not because of it, and that is what makes him admirable. One of Ernest Hemingway's many definitions of courage (not as lyrical as "Grace under pressure") was that it was the quality not of the man who felt no fear but rather of the man who was terrified but overcame the terror to do what was good and right.

In our world of folk music, Woody Guthrie is rightly the ultimate iconic figure. He probably did more to popularize regional folk music and embed it it our developing national popular culture than any other single individual. The Lomaxes and others found the songs, but Guthrie sang them - and then wrote his own. He was a radio star at times and in certain regions and a solidly selling recording artist just as much as he was a political figure. Guthrie had an eye to the commercial possibilities of the music he performed, and if he never allowed financial concerns to dictate what he sang and where he sang it, he never ignored them either. His influence on those who made folk music a truly successful part of the American music industry - especially Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, and Bob Dylan - is nearly immeasurable.

Guthrie's charismatic personality overshadowed his darker side, the side we don't want to remember: unfaithful husband, neglectful father, erratic and undependable friend, anti-authority rebel, radical fellow-traveller (as they used to say). I recall a remark made about actor Errol Flynn - that he could charm the socks off of anyone but inflicted devastating injury on anyone foolish enough to love him, and that seems to have been at least partially true of Guthrie as well. We want him to have been the Man of the People, the unsullied hero with a guitar on which was inscribed "This Machine Kills Fascists," the simple, the country-bred prophet of a new age of justice and equality. We don't want the sly, canny self-promoter and personal legend-builder that he also was.

I've profiled five of Guthrie's songs on this site: "This Land Is Your Land", "The Sinking Of The Reuben James", "Pastures Of Plenty", "Deportee", and "Hard Travelin'." The first four of these have clear political overtones, and the fifth implicitly so in its celebration of the Working Man and its illustration of Guthrie's credo that "I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

But Guthrie could also be whimsical and funny and pointed and just plain fun, and no song illustrates that better than "Hard, Ain't It Hard." No politics here, no noble working man, no progressive causes. This song has more in common with a fundamentalist revival camp meeting than it does with socialism - being as it is about the evils of hard drink and misdirected desire and all. But it ain't no camp meeting song, because Woody has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek and is singing it just for the fun of it:

Say what you will about the Kingston Trio - but they knew a good song when they heard one, as the really impressive number of songs that they recorded first or gave first national exposure to later found their way into other folk artists' (or pop artists') repertoires. Here they deliver Guthrie's composition with their trademark uptempo energy and high spirits:

For hardcore Trio fans - this is almost certainly the first KT song on which Bob Shane is using a pick to play the guitar. Virtually every other song on the first album, Capitol T996 The Kingston Trio has Shane strumming those steel strings bare-handed.

Oddly, just as I had been surprised that "Darlin" Corey" had over 120 different versions on YouTube, the two videos above are the only professionally recorded and performed versions of the song on the site. But there are some fun amateur and semi-pro recordings - first, bluegrass style from The Custom Grass Revue:

Next, the Cast Iron Maidens from Seattle in May of 2010. This is an interesting version, beyond the use of a musical saw and an aluminum upright bass - because Annie and Katie "re-gender" the lyric to relate Guthrie's lyric about a ne'er-do-well from a woman's point of view:

Finally, Guthrie recorded the tune again with The Almanac Singers, his pre-WWII rabble-rousing labor union rally music group. This recording is notable because the group at the time included both Pete Seeger and Lee Hays eight years before they started The Weavers - ans because the digital re-mastering of the voices produces remarkable clarity.

Next week - something rather more controversial, I think....

Addendum, 4/21/12

An upload of the grandpappy of all folk groups - The Weavers:

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