07/20/2012 02:11 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Remembering Woody: The Man and the Myth

A few months ago, I saw Ramblin' Jack Elliott play a one-man, acoustic show in New York City. He's 80-years-old now -- but he stills plays strong chords and his voice, though struggling to hit those high notes, is weathered poignantly by a life very well lived. Whatever notes he can no longer hit are triumphant and sobering reminders of the adventure and hardship of living the life of a workingman troubadour. Like many others at the concert that night, I went to enjoy a glimpse of a singer from another time and place -- I wanted to hear songs from such a time and place sung by a voice that was there, at least for a moment. And, I went to simply hear stories about Woody Guthrie -- to peer into an open, yet distant, life that Ramblin' Jack so illustratively and comically recounts in his singsong storytelling.

The Woody stories shared that evening were much like ones we've heard in Woody's lyrics or in the multiple books and films made about Woody Guthrie: stories of Woody sleeping in cars in the southwest for weeks at a time. Stories of him disappearing one night not to be seen or heard from for months. Stories of him moving freely and curiously through destitute lands of thousands of Americans hoping for better days. I've often felt that it's difficult to know where the myth of Woody Guthrie ends and the reality begins, but isn't that an indicator of most great folk heroes?

There's not much to say about Woody Guthrie's legacy in life and death that hasn't already been said. We've seen his influence live on in Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and thousands of other singers, songwriters, poets, storytellers and artists across the world -- well beyond the barriers of the United States. But, at the time of the Ramblin' Jack concert, I remember thinking that the songs and stories from those days often reflect an interestingly nostalgic time in America, when our cultural memory of the 1930s can sometimes eclipse the hardship of those times.

The memorialized version of Woody Guthrie is often one of a Dustbowl pioneer -- of a political activist, who made his intentions well known with that one blunt statement emblazoned onto his guitar: "This Machine Kills Fascists." There's something very attractive about embracing the train hopping Woody Guthrie of the 1930s who seemed to live somewhere between Dorothea Lange photographs and John Steinbeck novels. He was the living and breathing character otherwise captured in still photographs and he put into songs what was written in hundreds of pages of heartbreaking prose. He had a sense of nomadic adventure and attraction to the unknown - and he followed a life on the road, not only for the music, but also for social justice, before that was even a commonplace term.

With the recent 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, I wondered how Woody would be remembered -- how would we remember such a complex and multi-influential presence? I had listened to days of radio celebrations leading up to Woody's centennial; hour-long shows were dedicated to him, to his life and legacy. Concerts took place across the United States and Europe -- high profile tributes were staged in Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody's hometown and Coney Island, Brooklyn, Woody's adopted hometown. Through the radio commentary and during the concerts in New York that I attended, there was that expected balance of Woody's music and his activism. The music was fun, exciting, comical, emotional and delicate. The politics were echoes of Woody's and most people's contemporary take on them.

It was to be expected, of course, that the tribute show at New York's City Winery would end with "This Land is Your Land," Woody's critical response to "God Bless America." We sang it in downtown Manhattan, with Steve Earle and Billy Bragg leading the charge on stage. My table of strangers included a union labor lawyer from Queens and a Sociology professor, both of whom I had just met that night. They generously placed Woody's lyrics in a broad social context and shared very thoughtful insight into what Woody Guthrie represented in their respective movements.

And, even with that, I found myself drifting back to being a child and hearing "This Land is Your Land" in elementary school. Sure, the song is controversially condensed to not include all of the verses, but the verses that I did hear at that young age talked about a redwood forest, a ribbon of highway, a diamond desert, gulfstream waters, wheat fields, and roaming and rambling. All of those images were mystical and majestic to me sitting in a gymnasium in 1985. I didn't understand sarcasm or cynicism at that age -- but I did understand that there was a big, old world out there to be explored and I wanted to roam and ramble through it in the worst way.

As I grew older, I never forgot those images or the desire to see them for myself. When I was old enough, I took a two-month train journey from New York to California with a backpack and computer to document the stories of America and the Americans whom I met along the way. I couldn't play the guitar all that well and I couldn't carry a tune worth my life, but I wanted to tell the stories of America like Woody Guthrie did, because that's what Woody's legacy has been to me.

Maybe it's too idealistic for serious cultural scholars and activists (and I certainly respect that), but the Woody Guthrie who I celebrated last weekend was a storyteller who played a simple guitar and told important stories, that were both humorous and tragic -- that were both engaging and infuriating. The songs recounted complex tales of who we were, for better or for worse, and they told them in a way that could hook at 5 year old girl's attention in 3 minutes, such that they would stay with her far into adulthood.

That's how I've reconciled the legacy of this great American folk man -- it's his ability, long after his death, to inspire in others the need to see the country for ourselves, and to find meaning in its various characters and struggles. It's to not take his word, as Woody Gurthrie -- or any other person's word -- on what to believe in and how to believe in it. But, rather, he inspires us to embark on our own journey with the country, its music, its belief system and our own values and desires within it. From there, we are free to experience our own adventures and forge our own relationship, joyful and tumultuous though it may be, with an America that we have come to embrace as our own.

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