Woody Guthrie: What He Still Teaches Us

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Folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 on July 14, yet his words, music, and mission continue to stir us as if he were a contemporary figure, not just a legendary one. On Wednesday, NPR produced a retrospective on Guthrie that included this insightful quote from Time‘s  Joe Klein, who wrote a biography of the iconic figure in 1980.

“The further we get away from Woody’s birth and death, and take a look at his influence, [the more] it helps us learn about ourselves as Americans… There’s a wild-ass quality to this country that he personified. I go around the country. The greatest fear is that we’re losing that — we’re losing our creativity, our individualism. Woody was an individual, and a militantly individual individual.”

In this web-only video essay, Bill looks back at the singer-songwriter’s life and work, finding many points of irony and relevance given the current state of our economy and democracy. Is this land truly made for you and me? In this visual and musical journey, Bill asks the question, and puts forth a sobering answer.


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  • Barb

    Bill Moyers is the only one on television, even PBS, asking and exploring the tough questions of the day.  It is both the best and worst part of my week to listen.  Best because of the intelligent discussion and ideas to action, the worst because I usually end up so angry and frustrated at the injustices that area constantly being allowed, especially by those who we elected to change things.  I am so glad Bill Moyers is back.  As for Woody, he is one of the best as well.  However, having a connection to Oklahoma, that state is still totally run by preachers and big oil.  Having the Woody Guthrie in Tulsa, a hot bed of oil money, instead of Okeemah gives everyone a hint.

  • Bob Triggs

    Every time that I hear someone say that we should “take America back”, I find myself up against a sense of impossibility. When all we do is take to the streets and wave signs, yell and sing out our disdain for the way it has become for us in America, when all we do is protest, the police stomp the hell out of us, bash our heads in, peper spray us, shoot us down. How the hell does anyone take back America when The Man is heavily armed and the deck is already stacked against us. They dont mind shooting us in the streets.  

  • Muchmsw

    And cows.    Don’t forget the cows.

  • JMaiEr

    Thank you Bill Moyers for sharing this story of a time so long gone, or is it?

  • Cliffsidehearth

    When I was growing up in the 1960’s we had only a few records in the family collection. Cisco Houston Sings Woody Guthrie on Vanguard records was by far the most played LP. The lyrics were what stood out. When Cisco sang Woody’s song about Pretty Boy Floyd, the words went:
    “As through this world I ramble, I see lots of funny men, some will will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen”. Thanks for remembering Woody Guthrie and all those who continue to fight for truth, justice and respect.

  • Nancy

     Bill Moyers is a true American-the kind Woody wrote about.  Go see is son Arlo if you get a chance-he carries on his Dads work and more.

  • Mjhurwitz

    Woody Gutherie was a unique American voice.  He faced down violence, distain and his own raging demons to give a voice to a segment of American citizens that could not speak loudly enough for themselves to be heard.  We all benefitted.  If he were alive in this day I wonder if he could make enough noise to be heard, what with the risk adverse climate in the music industry and the inability of many Americans to hear anything that they don’t already agree with.

  • Anonymous

    social networks are a great way to start changes. I’ve witnessed change in a short amount of time with these tools.

  • mike

    We could use Woody’s guitar that he used to fight fascism.

  • Ginger

    Thank you, Bill.  You give me hope.

  • William Conti

    Bill Moyers is one of the few with a presence and voice in the media to chronicle the huge transfer of wealth in America to the already rich and the demise of the middle class. We are returning to some of the conditions of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl when there were few unions or worker protections and people roamed the country seeking work from owners who could dictate wages and working conditions as they pleased.  When Reagan fired the air traffic controllers when they went out on strike the writing began to appear on the wall. The “America” that Republicans want to “take back” is the one they are destroying. It  was built by FDR who inherited the economy just at the beginning of the Great Depression after it was run into the ditch by Hoover and his policies (sound familiar) whose reforms and worker protections created the middle class where a blue collar job in a single-income family could support a home, family, car, and even college with some help. That’s the “family values” America of the 40’s. 50’s, and 60’s that the Republicans tout.

  • Liam O’Dugan

    The imagination of the masses is missing.

    This hangs on the wall of my neighborhood bar, the starry plough:”No Revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, fears, and hopes the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous , defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is the dogma of the few and not the faith of the multitude”-James Connolly 1907

  • Liam O’Dugan

    they agree it’s messed up and no one has an answer (except innovation, and empathy)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6839920 Will Duggan

    The streets are not the play. Not even education. transformed business leadership.

  • GarandsPreferred

    It’s a t-shirt commentary, but I love it’s pithiness: Show me one, just one Fascist killed by Woody Guthry’s guitar!”

  • Dorothy Latour

    Television seems so distant from my life and those around me.  Then I watch Bill Moyers and feel so connected with reality. 

  • http://1world1wage.org/ sharee anne gorman

    I agree. The financial crisis was not an accident. It was a deliberate transfer of wealth. A controlled burn to put all wealth into the fewest hands possible in preparation for a lock-down of individual thought…for being left with only the choice between extreme rich and extreme poor is enough to silence most people. “The Tide” protest song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2Rm9uX9sPA

    Rebel Poetry

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Connor/100000777674649 Chris Connor

    Just listen to your commentary & find it would cover Australia as well, although we have spent some money on infer structure – Surely repairing your roads & bridges (especially after the collapse of one year or so ago) would lower unemployment which seems to be the electorate’s main concern.

  • glen coleman

    Bill, I am a high school history teacher and your programming will feature in our discussions on industrialization, imperialism, great depressions, and the rise of the middle class and more.  We will compare those topics to the contemporary reality you explore.   It is disconcerting to see history’s classic mistakes repeated year after year (i.e. solid checks and balances, reaping what you sow) maybe because we need more people like you to explain things clearly, to make it plain.  Thank you for your good work.  I think you’re a national treasure not unlike Woodie Guthrie himself.  

  • guest

    I am loath to dispute Joe Klein the biographer, but as an anthropologist who studies cultural differences, my interpretation of Woody Guthrie is that he is (his work lives) not an individualist but rather a person who cared deeply about the plight of others and a person who cared about sharing with others. Again, my interpretation is that Woody Guthrie rebelled against the American style individualism which so often has led (and still is leading to…) corruption, greed, and selfishness.

  • http://dustbowlpoetry.wordpress.com/ Shelley

    My writing is based in the time and place Woody Guthrie sang about, and there was never an artist more true to the real life real people lived than Woody Guthrie. 

    But the tragedies of his life are almost too awful to read about.

  • Sherryhanbury

    Time sparse, so added this to watch later…Learning to play guitar by myself initially, had “Pete Seeger’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide”. Also had another book just loaded with Woody. Taught me what we all learned in school singing Woody’s songs just “not knowing”…I’ll always be in awe of this tremendous persona, and his writing completely interwoven with the tapestry of America.

  • Tim Hornbecker

    Definitely one of my heroes along with Peter Seger who sang many of his songs! Happy Birthday, Woody, who was born almost the same year as my dad in neighboring Nebraska.

  • Hugh

    Woody was the song of the poor and disenfranchised during the “Worst Hard Time” in our country.  Wall Street collapse in 1929.  Great Depression, and the Great Dust Bowl.  Think of where we are now:  Wall Street Collapse, the “Great Recession” , and now two thirds of the country is in drought. The rich get tax cuts.  And more to come…Think what got us out of the last predicament.  It surely was not trickle down from private corporations.

  • Guest

    Thanks goodness there was a Woody Guthrie and it breaks the heart he had to go through such a terrible health problem and death.  And thank goodness for Bill who keeps his memory alive through discussion.