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Saturday, 1 February 2014

'The Typewriter Was the Best Instrument Woody Guthrie Ever Played'

Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger,
Arthur Stern, Agnes 'Sis' Cunningham.
A  typewritten letter from Woody Guthrie to Moses "Moe" Asch. Asch Records became Folkways Records in 1948. (See post on Pete Seeger and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.)
Thoughts of the great Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) naturally came flooding back this week with the sad passing of Peter Seeger.
It was Guthrie's biographer Joe Klein who uttered the words in the heading to this post.
In the foreword to Klein's 1980 Woody Guthrie: A Life, Studs Terkel (1912-2008) wrote:
 Studs Terkel with a typewriter, but not a Royal portable, unfortunately.
Studs Terkel, Win Stracke, Big Bill Broonzy, and Larry Lane, 1952
Seeger often told the story of how Guthrie borrowed a typewriter from a friend of Seeger's, activist Jerome A. (Jerry) Oberwager to write the lyrics of The Ballad of Tom Joad, based on a character in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Jerry Oberwager
Seeger recalled in The Incompleat Folksinger (1972), "Anything worth discussing was worth a song to Woody . . . I remember the night he wrote the song Tom Joad.
"He said, 'Pete, do you know where I can get a typewriter?'
"I said, 'I'm staying with someone who has one.'
"'Well, I got to write a ballad,' he said. 'I don't usually write ballads to order, but Victor [RCA Victor?] wants me to do a whole album of Dust Bowl songs, and they say they want one about Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.'
"I asked him if he had read the book and he said, 'No, but I saw the movie. Good movie.'
"He went along to the place I was staying - six flights walking up - on East Fourth Street. The friend I was staying with [Jerry Oberwager] said, 'Sure, you can use my typewriter.'
"Woody had a half-gallon jug of wine with him, sat down and started typing away. He would stand up every few seconds and test out a verse on his guitar and sit down and type some more. About one o'clock my friend and I got so sleepy we couldn't stay awake. In the morning we found Woody curled up on the floor under the table; the half gallon of wine was almost empty and the completed ballad was sitting near the typewriter.
"And it is one of his masterpieces. It's a long song - about six minutes - and it compresses the whole novel into about twenty verses. It doesn't cover every detail, but it gets an awful lot of them." 
 Ramblin' Jack Elliott: The Never-Ending Highway by Hank Reineke
Songs about Work: Essays in Occupational Culture for Richard A. Reuss
edited by Richard A. Reuss, Archie Green
 Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson
Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography 
by Agnes 'Sis' Cunningham and Gordon Friesen,  edited by Ronald D.Cohen
 Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs by Ronald D. Cohen
 The Life, Music and Thought of Woody Guthrie: A Critical Appraisal 
edited by John S. Partington
 This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song 
by Robert Santelli
 The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records by Stuart Maconie
Woody Guthrie, American Radical by Will Kaufman
American Folklore: An Encyclopedia edited by Jan Harold Brunvand
Reading Woody Guthrie's typewritten lyrics sheets in 1940. Guthrie, front right, with the Golden Gate quartet, Burl Ives with guitar and pencil behind ear, Margaret "Honey" Johnson, Josh White with guitar 1940. 
By a ghoulish coincidence, the 20th anniversary issue of British rock magazine Mojo landed on Australian newsstands the day Pete Seeger died. Mojo had decided to celebrate its 20 years by asking its 20 favourite artists what they were doing at the age of 20. Here is what Pete Seeger said:
It is interesting that Seeger mentions Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), the British author, wildlife artist, founder of the Woodcraft Indians and one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America, as a very early influence. Sadly, Seton never used a typewriter, or so I believe:


Richard P said...

A footnote to your remarkably rich story:

Do you know that the famous sentence THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS has been spotted on a typewriter used by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra?

Ed Darrell said...

Seton was one of Mark Twain's favorite illustrators.

Seeger to Twain, heckuva a link.

Pete was a pretty good woodsman and camper. He spent a summer in the woods near Rhinebeck, New York, at Camp Rising Sun of the Louis August Jonas Foundation.

I wonder whether he was a Boy Scout somewhere along the trail, too?