As the Independence Day weekend continues, I am thinking about those figures who, for me, typify the true spirit of America, and one of them is definitely Woody Guthrie.
Woody was a student of Eastern philosophy. Off and on. It began in 1935, when he discovered The Prophet by Kahil Gibran. Joe Klein, in his superb biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life, says the book was “a revelation. He was amazed to find in it a philosophy that mirrored his own exactly.”
Woody’s son, Arlo once told the NY Times, that his father “read many religious books and made copious notes in the margins. He read the Bhagavad-Gita as a young man and later in life ‘could argue back and forth about the Torah and the Talmud’.”
I read somewhere that during the mid-1940s, when he and his family were living at Coney Island, Woody became fascinated with Buddhism, even to the point of declaring his intention to become a Buddhist. I have a feeling, though, that he made a lot of declarations like that. He was like a sponge, soaking up everything of interest that came his way.
His interest in Eastern philosophy only continued until he got really sick with Huntington’s Disease. Then, according to Klein, he “threw himself at the mercy of Preacher McKensie’s total-immersion Christ, the ultimate healer. Facing the most horrible reality that a man can face, Woody decided that heaven was his only out – and loving Christ the only means of transportation.”
At one point, Woody also considered himself a Communist (“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been red all my life.”) – he was a lot of things, but mostly, as John Steinbeck said, “Woody is just Woody . . . I think we call this the American Spirit.”
The following is supposedly from a radio broadcast that Woody did on WNEW in 1944:
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you’ve not any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.