Stuart Ryan travels back in time to look at a pioneering singer-songwriter and incalculably influential man of the people, Woody Guthrie.
Stuart Ryan uncovers the work of a man whose Gibson bore the legend “This machine kills fascists”, American folk hero Woodie Guthrie.
The forefather of acoustic folk guitar style, Woody Guthrie lived through some of the most tempestuous episodes of the 20th century – the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of Communism and the Cold War certainly shaped Guthrie into the artist he became. He was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in July 1914 and grew up in a family where singing was a well-practised tradition, from Scottish folk to American traditional songs. His first stab at a musical career came in the early 1930s when he moved to Texas, but the onset of the Great Depression meant that he was soon on the road and looking for work, guitar in hand, and it was singing and playing that helped him pay his way.
In 1937 he arrived in California and started to perform on a local radio station singing traditional songs along with some of his own. Things started to pick up pace from here as the radio show also gave him a platform to air his political views and shaped him as the social commentator we think of today. Ever the restless wanderer Woody moved to New York in 1940 and befriended those artists we now think of as forming the great folk canon – Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Josh White and many more. Together they made music but just as importantly campaigned for the common man and his causes, thus coming to define the real meaning of the folk movement as we know it today.
Woody was a particularly prolific artist; he not only sang and wrote his own songs but drew, wrote poetry and novels and was also a prominent activist. He enlisted in the army during World War II and wrote many anti-Hitler songs and pro-war pieces, all of which served to rally the troops.
Returning from the war his health started to suffer and he was eventually diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. However, while in hospital a whole new generation (including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, leaders of the next wave of protest singers) were taking an interest in folk music and its forefathers, and in this way Woody was able to pass the torch onto the next generation.
His guitar style is well worth checking out - it serves as an accompaniment to his voice but is also never sidelined; indeed his playing is lively and infectious and, as with many of the great blues artists, features an interesting level of complextity as bass lines weave against strummed chords to create a sound that is full and rich at all times.
His guitar playing is lively and infectious and, as with many great blues artists, features interest and complexity
Woody Guthrie: influenced the great Bob Dylan
Any kind of acoustic will be suitable for this from a small parlour to a large dreadnought – the most important factors are having a strong sounding low end and a clear top end so the chords and bass don’t muddy up – in essence a good, balanced acoustic. Woody is best known for playing a 1945 Gibson Southern Jumbo. A signature model Gibson is available!