Thursday, July 30, 2009

Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'"

" I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
- Woody Guthrie

And just such a song is this week's selection, "Hard Travelin'," which I think must rank in the top five of Guthrie's best-known songs. It's prototypical political and myth-making Woody Guthrie at his best, celebrating the virtues of the common working man while at the same time infusing it with a hint of discontent and protest - and continuing to paint the portrait of himself that he wanted painted in the public's imagination.

Now, Woody Guthrie was the real deal as far as intinerancy and joblessness went, but some of that was of his own creation. The family that he was born into in Okemah, Oklahoma was until he was 14 far more prosperous than nearly any other family in town, and despite a series of setbacks and disasters including the death of his mother, WG's eventual nomadic lifestyle came about as much from his own dislike of school, discipline, and authority in general (and from his dislike of the uncle he lived with after his family dissolved in his late teens) as it did from economic circumstance. [Some speculate that it was WG's hatred of top-down authority that kept him from actually joining the Communist Party.] So Oklahoma-born and bred Woody Guthrie was never an Okie - never one of John Steinbeck's hardscrabble dirt farmers made homeless by foreclosed mortgages in the Depression.

And Guthrie seemed to have more of a taste for work in radio stations and music (at least as far as union organizing went) than he had for work in "hard rock tunnels" and "Pittsburgh steel." That's not to say that Woody didn't do that kind of work, because he did, most notably in FDR's WPA projects around the west, including the Grand Coulee and other dams on the Columbia River. But Woody turned that into good coin - he wrote a group of labor-oriented songs while being paid well by the federal government to do so because somebody in Washington recognized that WG had a voice that resonated with the common people. Traditional folksinger Raymond Crooke of Hong Kong and YouTube fame wrote, "It is ironic that some of Woody Guthrie's best songs were written as pro-government propaganda. In May 1941, he was hired to promote the federal dams on the Columbia River, especially the enormous Grand Coulee Dam..."

None of this mitigates the quality of WG's legacy as an artist or citizen - it's just that it is at at least slight odds with the public persona he created in his autobiography Bound For Glory - and in songs like "Hard Travelin'."

Our first performance is of course from Guthrie himself, from the Folkways recordings of the late 40s. I find his voice here quite pleasing - and the lyrics are different from some of the ones we've heard:

Now the Kingston Trio did this song in two distinctly different ways. The KT with Dave Guard gave the song a slightly bluesy quality, moderate speed, with a touch of country. The Trio with John Stewart used this is an opener when I saw them, and that version is faster, louder, less nuanced - because as here from the album Once Upon A Time, it's an opener:

I've always preferred the version by the original Trio with Dave Guard, however - fabulous bass opening by David Wheat:

Thanks to my KT message board friend Dave Long for uploading this.

About the same time that the Kingston's were getting started in the U.S., Lonnie Donnegan was beginning the skiffle craze in the UK. Sort of anticipating what Jim McGuinn described as "putting a Beatle beat to folk music" to create folk-rock, Donnegan put a simple 4/4 r&r beat to folk numbers like "The Rock Island Line" and this one, creating hits in Britain that influenced the young and impressionable John Lennon and Paul McCartney:

And now for three rather different contemporary versions. First, Flatt and Scruggs put their distinctive bluegrass spin on the song:

Recently uploaded here, some classic videos from the most dedicated KT tribute band, and I'll bet the longest-lived, the CountyLine Trio. The show is from 1982, and I'm hoping Chuck C. can fill us in a little bit on this - a fine upbeat performance of generally the Stewart arrangement:

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