as compiled and performed by Charles Deemer
Listen to audio of performance
(CAPS indicate song title)
I've always been a ramblin' man. From Oklahoma to California and back by freight train, highway and thumb. I've been stranded and disbanded, busted and disgusted, with people of all sorts, sizes, shapes and calibres. Folks that wandered around over the country looking for work, down and out, and hungry half the time.
I've slept with them, with their feet in my face and my feet in theirs. In bedrools with Canadian lumberjacks, in greasy rotten shacks and tents with the Okies and Arkies, gazing over the southwest like a herd of lost buffalo with the hot hoof and the empty mouth disease.
I was born in Okemah, Ofuskee County, Oklahom, in 1912 -- the year that Woodrow Wilson was nominated for President. My dad was quite a figure in Ofuskee County politics at that time, and so he named me after the President, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie -- which is too much of a name for a country boy, so I sawed off all the fancy work and just left Woody. Figured I could remember that.
My dad, he got borned in the sands of Texas, down off along a boundary line called Bell County, under the shade of a short hair cotton stalk and in the shadow of a big slim castor bean. He come up to the Indian free lands called by the name of Oklahoma and he found my mama born there, close to the smells of a bitter bark gypsum. Down off along a pecan bottom in some catfish drifts of the deep Fork River.
They had me and four more kids there in a little farmy ranch town up on a hill that they named Okemah.
All of us seen that farm and ranch town, over one night, turn into an oil town. Jumped from a hay and a greencorn crossroad, counting us, three hundred good souls, Indians, Negroes, whites, all equally scattered out there inside the city's limits. And we counted eyes and noses after the big oil field was dug down, when the riggers and the drillermen and the caser crew, and the pipers and the canvas glove men got in; after the roughneck, roustabout, ditch digger, tonk bucker, team skinner, boiler maker, fireman, scouterman, lawyerman, talkerman, drinkerman, singerman; the dancy lady, bayrum thinkers, extract guzzlers, canned heat squeezers, alky liars, fly by nighters, leaser man, royalty gal, and the new sheriff and the new law and the new judge and the new whore and the new pimp and the new ravers, fist fighters, card wheelers, slick fingers; and the holy roller yellers, and the non coms, and the snoose dippers, plug chawers, high riders, easy rollers; and after the mothers, fathers, and all their oily kids hit town, like I told you -- we counted dead eyes and live eyes all over again and our little ranchy farm town had five thousand, five and a half, eight thousand, and then we counted drunks and sobers and it run ten thousand over.
Okemah had become one of the singingest, square-dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun-club-and-razor-carryingest of all those ranch and farm towns because it blossomed into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
Well, right after that oil boom got under way, I found me a job walking the streets and selling newspapers. I stuck my head into every door, not so much to sell a paper but to just try and figure out where in the devil so many loud yelling people had struck from.
Traveling musicians hit down, made the rounds, and rambled on down the road. As fast as they'd light on the streets, I'd located them and park myself on a car fender close by and listen to them play.
Ear Players, folks called them, because they picked up their music and singing without reading the notes, and learnt more and more songs everywhere they went. Fiddlers that made their violins out of old oil cans, trick bow fiddlers; blues and religious players that begged for nickels up and sown the street. Preachers talked on hellfire and damnation and played music for their tips. Blind and crippled people rattled old tin cups, war veterans played mouth organs through shrapnel holes in their throats. Negroes blowed the railroad blues. Indians chanted up and down the curb, ballad singers of all kinds and colors hit the oil towns -- and there was very little of their kind of singing that I didn't soak up.
I AIN'T GOT NO HOME
Well, I took off out of Okemah -- hit the road. I got a few little jobs: helping a water-well driller, hoeing figs, irrigating strawberries in the sandy land, laying roofs, hustling sign jobs with a painter.
I hit Pampa in the panhandle of Texas and stuck there a while. Then the dust storms began to blow. No rain. Not one damned drop of rain. So dry you had to prime yourself to spit. Grasshoppers had to jump three times to break even.
DUST STORM DISASTER
We wrestled with the dust storms there in Texas til we wore the house out trying to keep it clean. Finally rented it out to a colony of ground hogs for a prairie dog hotel.
TALKIN' DUST BOWL
DO RE MI
I jump up late at night and grab somebody's pencil and somebody's paper and write down just the title line to some balladsong on the upper end of a blank sheet of paper. I jump out of some other bed several years later and set down the words to that ballad idea that hit me several beds ago.
So you see, you've got to be financially able to pay for a large number of beds if you have the least notion of ever being any kind of a folkballadsong maker.
So for I've not been able to tell the difference between a folk song and a ballad. For my own use, I've always just called a song a song. I didn't even hear the word ballad nor the word folksong, well, til I hit New York in the snow of '41 and to be right honest with you, I've been one of the mixeduppedest men ever since. I never heard any song called a folk song. After all, every song is a song by the folks and for the folks. I don't recall ever writing songs for cows, chickens, fish, monkey, nor wild animals of any kind.
You see, our family was sort of divided up into two sides. Now papa, he bought us all kinds of exercising rods and stretchers and kept piles of kids boxing and wrestling out in the front yard, and he taught us never, and I mean never, to allow any earthly human to scare us, bully us, or run it over us.
Meanwhile moma taught us kids to sing the old songs and in her way she told us over and over to always try and see the world from the other fellow's side.
Songs meant a lot to her. She collected hundreds of them in her head, and she chorded on the piano and sung tales and stories that taught us the history of our section of the country -- its weather and cyclones, pretty women and love affairs, its disasters, and its outlaws.
I was just following in the footsteps of my mother when I wrote down this here song about Oklahoma's most famous outlaw.
PRETTY BOY FLOYD
I got my first good earthly look at my Huntington's Chorea on back years ago as I watched how it worked on my mother, Nora Belle Guthrie. Huntington's Chorea means there's no help in the science of medicine for me, and all you Choreanites like me, because all of my good nurses and all of my good medicine men and all of my good attendants all look at me and say by your words or by your looks or maybe by your whispers, there's just not no hope nor not no treatment known to man to cure me of my Huntington's Chorea.
But I still am glad I did fall heir to my chorea because it makes me stay dizzy and drunk all the time without paying my bartender one little blue cent.
I just saw how odd it made moma act and do around our house, and I seen her lots more every day than my dad ever seen her. He'd get up bright and early every morning and he'd nibble down his little bit of a breakfast and he'd go saddle up his horse and he'd ride on off to his office down in town. As soon as he was gone, moma would throw around all of our furniture, she'd throw around all of our fixings, our chairs and tables and beds and bookcases, all around over the whole house while she had one of her bad spells. After her fit had worn itself off and gone on and left her, all us kids would all come and pitch in and we'd help her straighten up the whole house again, get the place all fixed up and nice and pretty again, by the time we heard papa's boot heels scrape on the front porch for our suppertime.
I could see my mother get worser and worser every little passing minute of all my passing years before I saw her get bad enough, really bad enough, for any of our next door neighbors to get wind of what she done, or even for my very own daddy to get very wise to it all. I learnt how, if not why, it is that my people spend about a good ninety-nine and nine-tenths of their earthly hours here on my worldly planet just trying to hide the simple little facts and truth of life from one another.
I been a member of nine jillion different unions. We didn't have no big newspapers or radio stations to tell our side of the story. We didn't have no judges and no police force. But we had people.
I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn't more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits. It was a he rabbit and a she rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. Outside the dogs was a-howling. The he rabbit turned to the she rabbit and he said, What do we do now? And the she rabbit, shejust give him a wink and said -- We stay here til we outnumber them.
I wrote that song for the Ladies Auxilliary and they said they liked okay except for one thing -- I didn't use the words Ladies Auxilliary enough in the song. So I took out my pencil and scribbled them this one.
OH THE LADIES AUXILLIARY
The last union I belonged to was the National Maritime Union. That was during World War II. You know, I think the maddest I've ever been in my whole life was when I rode out on a troopship with more than three thousand men headed for France, and we got about half way out on the ocean and a big storm come up. That ship rocked and rolled and made a lot of us sick. We hadn't been across before. We turned on the radio and a song blubbered out over the loudspeaker, called Born to Lose. Now ain't that some hell of a goddamn song for the United States Army to have poked down its throat on its way into a battle?
I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you're just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to to nobody, no good for nothing. Because you're too old or too young, or too fat or too thin, or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard travelin'.
I'm out to fight these kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I'm out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and if it's hit your pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it's run you down and rolled over you, no matter what color you are, what size, how you are built; I'm out to sing the songs that will make you take pride in yourself.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
Billionaires cause hoboes and hoboes make billionaires yet both curse the other and say they are wrong. Personally, I'd rather trust the hoboes. Most of what I know I learned from hoboes -- and from kids.
Now watching kids is the highest form of art there is in the world. It can be as bitter as a drink of carbolic acid -- or as sweet as a warm cup of new milk and wild honey.
WHY O WHY
A kid is a thing that knows everything. A kid is a thing that wants everything. A kid is somebody that just don't want to stay still.
A kid chases all kinds of stuff. A kid's pockets are trashboxes.
A kid throws down a ten dollar toy and plays with an old chunk of nothing.
I'M GONNA WRAP MYSELF IN PAPER
Kids are loony, kids do crazy things. Kids give love and ask for nothing in return -- and kids give love and ask for everything in return.
You want to know what love is? Just watch your kids. Listen to them whoop and cackle, their crazy caterwaul.
THE CAR SONG
The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in the world. The Northwest has got mineral mountains. It's got chemical deserts. It's got rough run canyons and sawblade snowcaps. It's got ridges of nine kinds of brown, hills out of six colors of green, cliffs five shades of shadows, and stickers the eight tones of hell.
I pulled on my shoes and walked out of every one of these Pacific Northwest mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down.
THAT BONNEVILLE DAM IS A SIGHT TO SEE
I saw the Columbia River the the big Grand Coulee Dam from just about every cliff, mountain, tree, post, and every other angle from which it can be seen. I made up 26 songs about the Columbia and about the dam and about the men, and these songs were recorded by the Department of Interior, Bonneville Power Administration, Portland, Oregon. The records were played at all sorts and sizes of meetings where people bought bonds to bring the power lines over the fields and hills to their own little places.
But there were reactionary congressmen in back of the people who owned those little private dams and power houses out there, that didn't want to see the Grand Coulee built, because it would make electricity dirt cheap and cut down on their profits. They can always think up a million nice good reasons why it is better for you to go ragged and hungry and down and out and even sit there in the dark, as long as it makes them a profit.
But lots of people made speeches on both sides. Movie stars flew up in big airplanes and told the folks how nice it was not to have no electricity and not to have no Coulee Dam at all. But we made speeches on our side, too, and we played the records over the loud speakers there in those little towns, and the people shelled out money and bought the bonds and brought the electricity up over the hill to milk the cows, shoe the old mare, light up the saloon and the chili joint window, and the ladies dresses and hats in the windows, and the schools and churches along the way, and to run the factories for Uncle Sam. And that's how things get done. Just people doing it.
O THE WORLD IS SEVEN WONDERS
ROLL ON, COLUMBIA
Gawdalmighty, I been interested in a world of stuff since I been born. I don't know why it is but I feel about half the time like I ought to be everywhere else in the world except right here where I am.
If I ever die don't bury me On Wall Street under a cement tree Where folks can look at a marble slab And all this trash and obstructory But if I die -- and when I do Just cart me out where the sky is blue And have some carrier carve this piece: Woody knows just where he is
When I think back through my life to everybody that I owe, I mean the ones I can remember. Of course I know that I owe these folks, and that they owe some other folks, these are in debt to others, and all of us owe everybody. The amount that we owe is all that we have.
I've heard a storm of words in me. I guess I got to where the only way that I could cry was on some piece of paper in words like these. But I know that these words that I hear are not my own private property.
I borrowed them from you. I borrowed them, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving. You may have been taught to call me by the name of a poet but I am no more of a poet than you are. I am no more of a writer of songs than you are, no better singer. The only story I have tried to write has been you. All I am is just sort of a clerk and climate tester, and my workshop is the sidewalk, your street and your field, your highway and your buildings. I am nothing more nor less than a photographer without a camera.
I knew that my trail would be a story that whirls. I knew the tale would be a freewheeler, a quick starter, a high running circling chorus that keeps on repeating over and over, and would sing every song to be sung under the one tune and the one name.
And that song and that tune ain't got no end. It ain't got no notes wrote down and there ain't no piece of paper big enough to put down on.
Every day you are down and out, and lonesome and hungry, and tired of working for a hobo's handout, there's a new verse added to this song.
Every time you kick a family out of their home, cause they ain't got the rent, and owe lots of debts, there's another verse added to this song.
When a soldier shoots a soldier, that's a note to this song. When a cannon blows up twenty men, that's part of the rhythm, and when soldiers march off over the hill and don't march back, that's the drumbeat of this song.
This ain't a song you can write down and sell. This song is everywhere at the same time. Have you ever heard it? Woody has.
PASTURES OF PLENTY