Considering the incredible reach of Woody Guthrie’s influence, we decided to ask a few artists to share their favorite Woody Guthrie songs and talk a bit about what it means to them.
Tony Dekker (Great Lake Swimmers), “Ship in the Sky”
"Ship in the Sky" gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it. Listen closely to the lyrics, and realize how deftly Woody emphasizes the interconnectedness of us all: societally, familially, emotionally and practically — all told from the innocent perspective of young children conversing in a school yard. It's hands-down one of the sweetest songs I've ever heard, and stands tall among those rare tunes that invoke tears of both hardship and life-affirming joy.
Luke Reynolds (Guster), “This Land is Your Land”
Anyone in my inner circle who knows me real well knows how cramped I get in crowded places. The earliest known recording of "This Land Is Your Land," which Woody first recorded in 1944, the same day he cut 75 other songs, had a verse in it that has been kinda lost over time. But it's my favorite lyric he ever wrote. It went: "There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted, it said 'private property'/ But on the back side it didn't say nothing/ That side was made for you and me."
"But on the back side, it didn't say nothing. That side was made for you and me." I think about that verse all the time, whenever I get turned away from fishing on a trout stream that runs across private property, or where I can't find no public access, onto something beautiful. I mean, as a new land-owner myself, I can absolutely appreciate and am sensitive to the fact that when you own something, you become a steward for it, and in not wanting someone to run their ATV across your meadow, or go blasting their deer rifle through your back yard without permission. But the people who can afford to pay the crazy money the real estate market deems those beautiful pieces of high acreage property are worth, they post those signs, and in doing so limit access to the land to anyone else. I think that's what Woody was getting at in that verse. That and probably 1,000 other things. Like any good song, right?
Vashti Bunyan, “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”
I read it as much as hear it — a good story, beautifully told in the kind of American language which conjures earlier times for me, times when I was very young and hopelessly romantic about the United States — and Bob Dylan. I may not get all of it — and some lines startle me — but I still admire it as a song. I wish I could write long songs.
Angus Stone (Angus & Julia Stone), “Dusty Old Dust”
Dusty old dust on my speaker topâ€¦log wood shallows sipping whiskey, fishin' for catfish with a can of worms from the blues jarâ€¦Tasteful clutter fills my head when Mr. Guthrie is in the house.
Sam Parton (The Be Good Tanyas), “Pastures of Plenty”
It was written 70 years ago, but this song is entirely relevant today. It makes what's pretty abstract for a lot of people very real, and does so in a beautifully poetic way: that the abundance of food in the land of plenty called America doesn't come from nowhere. Woody tells the story of the migrant worker who leaves the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and heads west to California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, working the land and harvesting crops, sleeping on the ground, drifting like a ghost from town to town, poor, marginalized (these days, often illegal), and invisible to the urban society who consumes the (literal) fruits of the migrant's labor. The narrator is like a shade, seldom seen: "On the edge of your city you've seen us and then, we come with the dust and we go with the wind." It's Whitman-esque, a song of the earth and the body; a loving protest against inequality, as well as a love song to the land from a narrator who knows the country far more intimately than those who hold the power and the wealth. As someone who worked in tree-planting camps in British Columbia for 10 years, moving with the seasons from the interior to the coast, I relate to this song on a bodily level. I also love that it's only got one chord, so it's easy to play.
Haroula Rose, “Miner’s Song”
"Miner's Song" is my favorite Woody Guthrie song, if I had to pick one of the many I admire. If I were to break it down on an intellectual level of measuring and understanding, it sums up a lot of the devices he uses throughout his whole canon of work — heartbreakers, humor, repetition, imagery and universality. I like how he builds something, but at the same time, it's circular and ends up where he has started; that's pretty genius. To me, it is a devastatingly sensitive song about life and labor and love, and the more you dig into the song, the more reward there is. So his imagery goes from digging and what that means and how to dig in the various ways and stages of life. "Precious metal is hard to find," as is a "nice round pearl," "a perfect ruby," "a good-shaped diamond" and, finally, "a nice-shaped woman." I like how it sounds lighthearted and funny, the way he sings the syllable "Dig and I dig and dig and dig dig diggy dig dig dig a dig" as though it's harmless and happenstanceâ€¦To the last image which cycles back to the beginning, only he changes "dig" to "dug" which is so heartbreaking.
"Caught me a gal with a rake and a hoe/ We dug our lives away-o/ And we dig our lives away/ Climb way up to the forks of the tree / Prettiest little bird nest I ever did see / Get up the sticks and eggs and all / And dig my life away-o/ Well I dug my life away"
I mean, what else do we ever do but dig? Digging is life — or, at least, a meaningful one. He is singing a song about all of us, not just miners. And this is why we still listen to him and revere him as the magnificent voice that he continues to be.
Rocky Votolato, “Hard Traveling”
I've always thought of Woody Guthrie as the original folk hero. He's where everything started for anyone still keeping up the tradition of hard-traveling folk/punk singers. I was introduced to him as the hero of my heroes — Dylan, Springsteen, Cash — and anyone that knew anything at all about songwriting idolized him. I always loved this song, and hearing it takes me back to the mixtapes I listened to on my first few U.S. tours. He sang for the working class and for anyone looking for something real from music — not some polished, fake, soul-less version just trying to sell you something.
Tom Grey (The Brains/Delta Moon), “This Land is Your Land”
We all sang "This Land is Your Land" in elementary school. But on the original 1944 recording, after extolling the redwood forest and the wheat fields waving, Guthrie sang an extra verse that the schoolteachers would have never approved:
"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted, it said 'private property'/ But on the back side it didn't say nothing/ That side was made for you and me."
Elizabeth Mitchell, “Little Seed”
I always thought that this song sounded like a treasure from Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, so it was fun to sing and play it with our beloved Woodstock, New York, friends and neighbors Amy Helm, Ruthy and Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, David Levine and Clem Waldmann. When my daughter Storey and her friend Sophia came home from school, they sang along, and the album was done!
Quetzal Flores (Quetzal), “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”
Even though she was born in Arizona, my grandmother Juanita Carlos Valdez was deported during the repatriation act raids of the 1930s. She was sent to northern Mexico and spent weeks living under a ficus tree before finally making her way back to a small ranch in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. This song always brings me back to this story and the continued systematic brutality against immigrants and people of color reducing them to simple statistics and objects of political leverage.