Episode 32. “Song to Woody.” Bob Dylan. Live at Town Hall 1963. Bob Dylan and George Harrison Session. Bunker. Week 1 of Woody Guthrie Month. October 5, 2017.
Woody Guthrie month started off on a sad note concerning the death of Tom Petty but if there was ever a fitting song for such a week it’s “Song for Woody.” First performed at the Gaslight Café and recorded for his debut album on November 20, 1961, “Song for Woody” is a gem in Dylan’s catalogue. Clinton Heylin believes this to be the first song Dylan wrote after arriving in New York City in 1961, after finding Woody at Brooklyn State Hospital. In 1986, Dylan said:
I never really did speak too much to Woody. He would call out the name of a song – a song he wrote that he wanted to hear – and I knew all his songs. . . . I’d go out there. You had to leave at 5:00. It was in Greystone. . . . Bus went there . . . from the Forty-Second Street terminal. You’d go there and you’d get off and you walked up the hill to the gates. Actually, it was a pretty foreboding place.
Before beginning Woody Guthrie Month, Kelly summarized him and his achievements. Daniel and Kelly talk about their individual experiences with Woody, how he’s deployed in popular culture, how quickly we misremember what he actually stood for. Like their conversation during “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” it’s amazing how much of a boogeyman Woody is to the conservative and sycophant so prevalent in America. Daniel quotes Michael Grey in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
The great folklorist Alan Lomax wrote of Guthrie that ‘he inherited the folk tradition of the last American frontier (western Oklahoma) and during his incessant wandering across the US he has recomposed this tradition into contemporary folky ballads about the lives of the American working class. . . . No modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture.’ Well, except one.
Kelly was unequivocal that this was her favorite Bob Dylan song so far. And it’s not hard to explain why: it’s appropriation of “1913 Massacre” is haunting; Dylan’s voice is sweet and his words are worldly; the guitar picking is exquisite. It’s a classic Dylan song in that it’s so loaded with emotion itself that it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in your own thoughts and, by the end of the track, realize you’ve been crying.
Those are it’s universal strengths, but it’s also an artfully constructed song. Beyond the tune from “1913 Massacre,” Dylan references “Pastures of Plenty” (“we come with the dust and we go with the wind”), “Hard Travelin’,” and “Joe Hillstrom” (“Hey, Gurley Flynn, I wrote you a song to the dove of peace, it’s coming along”). Keep in mind that Dylan is only twenty years old!
It’s the emotions and the craftsmanship that drive home the persistent theme of Dylan’s work: knowing your roots by living your life, and being open to ghosts of the past. Woody was still very much alive when Dylan wrote this but there’s no doubt it’s eulogizing an era and its greats (Cisco, Sonny and Lead Belly too) as a reflection on the hard roads that we all must go down in our way.
The song disappeared from his live sets after he signed to Columbia but this wasn’t the last of Dylan and Woody. He’d, of course, perform “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” at the Town Hall in April 1963. His “Letter to Woody” (the sixth “outlined epitaph”) was written in the fall of 1963 and appeared in Times They Are A-Changin’. He’d rediscover the song with the Never Ending Tour, last playing the tune as of 2002. Dylan told Robert Hilburn of the LA Times:
Woody’s songs were about everything at the same time. They were about rich and poor, black and white, the highs and lows of life, the contradictions between what they were teaching in school and what was really happening. He was saying everything in his songs that I felt, but didn’t know how to [express].
MIXED UP CONFUSION
In addition to “Song to Woody,” we also recorded a special Mixed Up Confusion to talk about Woody and one of the many seminal moments in his life: The American Dust Bowl and his classic 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads.
Kelly spent the week with BoJack Horseman and American Horror Story: Roanoke.
Daniel recommends three new releases from this past week, from least essential to most, starting with The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die Always Foreign.
Then Worriers’ latest, Survival Pop.
Finally, early contender for his album of the year, Propagandhi’s Victory Lap
Kelly guessed #346, which was “High Water” off “Love & Theft.” It was #261, “Three Angels” from New Morning. EXCEPT (!!!) Woody Guthrie Month rolls on with “I Shall Be Free” from Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan!