“We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.”
Adlai E. Stevenson, 23rd Vice President of the United States
I have long been intrigued by the idea of using American music as a way to tour the United States of America, and as a way to understand the country better. This article is one example of how that might be done.
Through music we can tell the story of the American experiment, nearly 250 years of twists, challenges, stunning triumphs, mistakes and corrections, wars, and rumors of wars. It is a story of towering statues welcoming immigrants, and walls to keep them out, of breathtaking beauty and poisoned rivers of fire, and of people, yes, the amazing people. These are just a few of the ingredients that make the United States a country that is unlike any other on earth. It is a country so many around the world want to see, the one that compels millions to scour the Internet, books, maps, and social media with one question on their minds: How do I find America?
To answer that question, we recruit as a guide the spirit of 1930’s folk singer, poet, and activist Woody Guthrie, a man who some consider to be the father of American folk music. In a lot of ways, Woody is the kingpin that holds the whole story of American roots music together, and with it, our story. He was a complex American who was at once protester and idealist, itinerant hobo and family man, common man and legend. His songs are certainly legend, and there is scarcely a musician alive today who does not, knowingly or unknowingly, owe a debt to Woody Guthrie.
Throughout the tour, I use as a motif the Guthrie song “Pastures of Plenty,” which like many of his songs, heralds the hard work and sacrifice of a tough people in a hard time. From that one song we move outward to people and places that shaped the country and gave it heart, letting the music direct our path. From roots of folk, gospel, bluegrass, R&B and blues (genre Americana) we move into rock and roll, the music that grew alongside, and even sparked, a tidal shift in American culture, politics, and power.
Let’s get started.
Here are three versions of the Pastures of Plenty from which to choose. Take a moment to listen to at least one of them, and read through the lyrics.
- Woody Guthrie’s original. A classic.
- Bob Dylan’s cover. You can never go wrong with Dylan.
- The Irish band Solas’ cover. Fresh and powerful. My personal favorite.
Pastures of Plenty by Woody Guthrie
It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hand have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and westward we rolled
And your desert was hot and your mountains was cold
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
Slept on the ground in the light of your moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I make all your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine
Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in this Union us migrants have been
We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win
Well it’s always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free
The Great Depression
I submit it is impossible to find America, or to begin to understand it, without appreciating the devastating effects of the Great Depression, an experience that even today, some 80 years later, prompts my elderly mother, who was born in 1924, to save scraps of tin foil and food that most would throw away. It remains to date the longest, deepest, and most widespread economic depression of US history, throwing millions of Americans out of work and into near starvation and utter poverty. My mother was one of those, and she will never forget the hardship.
Without the context of the Depression, it is impossible to understand what motivated scores of desperate Americans to work like slaves building the Hoover Dam in the canyons of the brutally hot Arizona desert, carve the Blue Ridge Parkway through the frigid and hardscrabble Appalachian Mountains, bravely face a hail of Nazi bullets while storming the beaches of Normandy, or more darkly, harbor deeply held racist and xenophobic views we still see today. A case can be made that the Great Depression, and the World War that followed it, are as influential to shaping modern America as the US Civil War was to shaping 20th century America. These are the times and the people of which Guthrie sang.
Our Mode of Travel
Music is a talisman of sorts, a magical object that, when experienced, whisks us away to far-off places. If you love music, as I do, then you have had this experience many times. On this tour, we’ll tap into that magic and travel by bus, but not just any bus. Ours is a magic bus like the one author Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters drove cross-country in the 1960’s, landing at the famous Woodstock music festival of 1969. Kesey’s inspiration for that epic trip was the provocative book “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, a man you’ll meet on our first stop.
If you are an American, I ask that you put aside your beliefs and imagine yourself to be someone from a completely foreign country who has a complicated and distorted view of America, one of both fascination and, at times, revulsion. Imagine, for example, that you are a university educated person, in your mid-30’s, born and raised in China and visiting the US for the first time.
It’s time to board the magic bus for the first stop on our tour, Greenwich Village in New York City.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City was Mecca for a new generation of young people inspired by folk singers like Guthrie. These young Americans, referred to as the Beat Generation (from which the term “beatnik” was coined) were sandwiched between the greasers of the mid 50’s, made famous in movies like “Grease” and “American Graffiti”(directed by George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame”) and the hippies of the 1960’s. Beatniks would be a minor footnote in American culture but for the enduring influence of literary iconoclasts like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both pioneers of the Beat Generation and, along with other beats, progenitors of the hippie movement.
New York City is where the anti-establishment, leftist, rebellious, youth-centric ideals of the beat and hippy movements took root. Guthrie was there then. There too Kerouac completed his epic novel “On the Road” and Ginsberg recited his controversial poem “Howl,” both denouncing what they saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States. The seeds of rebellion were planted there, and they would later flower into street protests for civil rights, and against US involvement in Vietnam. Those protests, often peaceful but sometimes violent, contributed mightily to the agony of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the downfall of another president, Richard M. Nixon. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” it has been said, and we can trace major disruptions of US power directly back to the pen of Woody Guthrie’s beatnik co-conspirators.
Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital
From New York we head south to the District of Columbia (DC), and as we do, we pass by the ruins of the infamous Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey where Guthrie was hospitalized for Huntington’s disease. It was there that a 19-year-old Bob Dylan, who idolized Guthrie, often visited the ailing musician. It is hard to overstate the influence Dylan had on the American psyche. His early songs, such as Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin, and With God On Our Side, were taken straight from the Guthrie songwriting playbook, and as such became anthems for the American civil rights and antiwar movements, which had as their epicenter Washington DC, the capitol of the United States of America.
Our first stop in DC is not the Capitol Building or the White House, but rather the sweeping memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd President, and the man who led the country through the dark years of the Great Depression in the 1930s and into the final years of World War II. Roosevelt is recognized as being among America’s greatest presidents, and is well-known by Americans as “FDR” or, by his contemporaries, as simply “The President.” For them, there was no other.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
While some today may fear president-elect Trump’s empirical ambitions and consider them unprecedented, we have FDR as an example of a near American emperor, albeit as liberal as Trump is conservative. In times of fear and uncertainty, all people seek a strong demagogue who will singlehandedly save them (Mussolini and Hitler were also such leaders), and thus FDR was elected for an unprecedented four terms; a tenure made impossible by Constitutional Amendment ratified after his death. President Trump can only dream of having the power once held by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but may it never be so.
Steeping oneself in the FDR memorial is one way to recalibrate one’s political compass and recall a time when Russian communists were not America’s archenemy, but rather our allies in a brutal fight against Axis fascists. That is easy to see now in the pure light of history. But during the 1930’s and 40’s, as the Depression lingered, Hitler’s armies blitzkrieged Europe, and the earth’s greatest man-made environmental disaster ravaged America’s farmlands (the “Dust Bowl”), Americans didn’t know who they feared more: fascists, communists, or terrifying mile-high clouds of black, choking dirt. Guthrie made his decision, openly lauding the Communist party and signing his guitar with the slogan “This machine kills fascists.”
The Red Scare
If you are someone from outside the US, or are imaging yourself to be so, then you may find the American rancor over Donald Trump’s admiration for Russian president Putin confusing. But American fears of communism, called “Red Scares,” have a long history, getting their start in the hyper-nationalism following WWI. In 1938, to investigate alleged “disloyalty” and “subversive” activities on the part of private citizens, the US government formed the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an organization with the power to jail Americans it deemed “un-American.” Future US president Richard Nixon was a member of HUAC, which survived until 1975.
Guthrie’s musical colleague and friend Pete Seeger fell into HUAC’s jaws and compelled him, and other artists, to employ the ancient technique of disguising their message in lyrical code. So much for free speech. Dylan rather famously used the same technique, contributing to his winning a Nobel prize in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
We have HUAC to thank for the priggish Motion Picture Production Code, which suppressed free expression in the US for decades and gave a whole generation of Americans, myself included, cleaned up, revisionist versions of American life and history, not all of which were bad (Hey…Casablanca was made during this time.) Those versions, however, were in contrast to and shattered by the realities of the Vietnam war, a war the Vietnamese people call “the American war.” And so, the appropriate next stop on our tour is a long black wall inscribed with tens of thousands of names, below which we find flowers and small American flags. We are at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC.
The Long Black Wall
The Vietnam War of the 1960’s was a long, costly, and controversial war that claimed over one million lives (including over 58,000 Americans) and threw the US into civil strife. The shadow of the war cast a pall over the country’s politics, culture, and public discourse — one that still lingers today.
The famous Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, also known as the long black wall, is inscribed with the names of Americans killed or missing in action from during that war. The wall’s reflective surface bridges the past with the present, which is you. As you walk along the wall, it cuts deeper and deeper into the ground, conveying the growing number of war fatalities. More and more flag draped caskets came home as the US was drawn deeper and deeper into the quagmire that was Vietnam. If you were alive at that time, as I was, you might remember the body counts and the growing suspicion that something had gone wrong, terribly wrong.
The mood of that era, that of growing unrest and disenchantment, is implied in Steppenwolf’s 1968 song “Born to be Wild” and fully captured one year later by the Vietnam war protest song “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The songs keep the spirit of our Agent of Fortune Woody Guthrie without dishonoring Vietnam veterans for doing their very best to accomplish what was asked of them, which was the impossible.
The blackness of the wall speaks to the dark secrets of Vietnam, still deeply buried in the American psyche, secrets you will only hear about by talking to a veteran of that war, assuming you can get one to talk. Even then, unless you were there (I wasn’t), one can’t begin to know the haunting burden of their memories, which Vietnam vets too often carry alone and without thanks. If you have yet to tip your hat, or your glass, to one of those valiant men or women, now would be a good time.
This land I’ll defend with my life if need be,
Because pastures of plenty must always be free.
It’s time to move on, but first, we must pay our respects to a place hundreds of miles away, one undeserving of a physical visit because the place is sadly unremarkable, but well worth a virtual visit, because it will forever be remembered by a tragic event and a remarkable song. I am speaking of Kent State University, and the song is “Ohio.”.
Kent State Massacre
May 4, 1970. A war-weary nation. A paranoid, brooding president. Yet another student demonstration against the war. Things had gotten out of hand so many times before, so the hardline, “law and order” Ohio State governor calls in the National Guard to maintain…law and order. Things get out of hand. Shots are fired, and four unarmed Kent State students fall dead.
Within hours of the shooting, a traumatized Neil Young, a protege of Bob Dylan and disciple of Woody Guthrie’s, has written “Ohio.” Within days, the song has been recorded by the band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and a generation of young radio listeners have their hearts transformed. I was one of those. Such is the power of music. Ohio is still played today, and whenever I hear it, I remember.
Enough said. Let us board our magic bus, touch the musical talisman, and leave this sad place, taking with us only the wisdom experience teaches.
To pick up the pace of our tour, we’ll shift our magic bus into high gear and fly over important places and times, stopping with respect at some, and passing over others. Our first stop is the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, where we learn of the long, hard fight — still underway — for the equal rights of all Americans to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” rights enshrined in the US Constitution but too often denied to too many.
Guthrie gave voice to the voiceless in “Pastures of Plenty” when he wrote, “Every state in the Union us migrants have been. We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win.” The fight of which he sang was carried by brave Civil Rights leaders like Ceaser Chavez and the great Martin Luther King, who, among others, challenged the prevailing political message of that time, one of white supremacy over relatively powerless people of color. Their fight lives on.
We pass over Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music and a great city well worth visiting on another tour, but one whose music too often celebrates the “good old days” when times were good, pure, and simple, a mythical America that is real for only a few (mostly white) folks. That was not Guthrie’s America. His music spoke of struggle, hardship, injustice, and homelessness. We have some country musicians who carried Woody’s flag (Merle, Johnny, Willie, Hank), but his message is more likely found in a music that is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world. We are speaking of the Blues, so our bus stops at:
New Orleans, Louisiana, a place that historically stews up a jambalaya of songs about women, liquor, hard work, prisons, sailors, rambling, and dancing — Guthrie’s steady diet. Louisiana is also the birthplace of blues legend Lead Belly, a friend and musical colleague of Guthrie’s. Grunge rocker Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana cited Lead Belly as a dominant influence, and the band’s punk fueled sound charmed America’s Generation X (those born roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s.) Together they saved rock and roll from the musical contagion we call disco. They saved rock and roll from death.
Memphis, Tennessee and Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. He was white, but he sounded black, and blues songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” caught the attention of a teenaged Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The world hasn’t been the same since, for as Neil Young said in “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue),” rock and roll is here to stay.
St. Louis, Missouri, home of the fabulous and newly opened National Blues Museum and home of Dred Scott, a black slave who sued for his freedom in the US Supreme Court, (America’s highest) and lost, because in 1857, America’s supreme justices believed that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves” could not be an American citizen, and were thus not entitled to the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution. Scott died in 1858, and America’s deadly Civil War started three years later.
A true tour of the blues would include many other places, not the least of which is Chicago, the terminus of Rt. 66, America’s Road. But Pastures of Plenty is our guide now, saying “on the edge of the city you’ll see us and then, we come with the dust and we go with the wind.” The wind blows us into the heartland of America and over the states of Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. The song blows us into what was the “Dust Bowl.”
The Dust Bowl
The dust bowl of the 1930’s was the worst, man-made environmental disaster the world has ever seen. For eons prior to the 19th century, millions of buffalo roamed over vast stretches of grasslands (prairies), co-existing in a natural balance with the Native American people, called “Indians” by Christopher Columbus, the alleged discoverer of America.
Prompted by the US Federal government, who was anxious to populate its western lands, white settlers moved west through the late 19th century and into the 20th, killed the buffalo, forcibly moved the Indians to destitute areas, and began tearing up the prairies with the plow. Then, in the early 1930’s, a natural drought plagued the area, but by now there was no grass to hold down the dry soil. Stirred up by winds from the north, towering clouds of roiling black dust descended upon the terrified farmers year after year, leading to poverty, disease, despair, and ruin. Many of Guthrie’s songs capture the anguish of America’s dust bowl refugees borne of this time of desperate hardship.
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road,
Out of your Dust Bowl and westward we rolled.
Some have not forgotten this worst, hard time. Alison Krauss & Union Station remind us of the plight in the 2011 song “Dust Bowl Children.” (Coincidently, Alison Krauss is also the name of one of the four students killed at Kent State.) Hard times made for a tough, resilient people, sometimes called America’s Greatest Generation, and the monumental contributions they made to the country are found everywhere, from blackness of Colorado’s silver mines, to the white headstones of Normandy’s WWII cemeteries, to the winding roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We salute those brave, hard-working Americans, and then westward we roll, passing over ultra-conservative Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie’s birthplace, where until recently the man was shunned due to his leftist politics. As we fly over the State of Mississippi, let us throw flowers out the bus’ window in honor of Robert Johnson, for there would be no Blues without him.
The American West
It pains me to also pass over Los Angeles, California, because so much good music came from there and continues to do so. But like Nashville, LA has been inconsistent in its projection of America, at times colluding in the fabrication of a disingenuous, sugar-coated image of the country, and abusing the underclasses that Guthrie championed. For decades, Hollywood films projected a faux America where the “good” guys (white Americans) always won and the “bad” guys (Germans, Japanese, communists, Native Americans, homosexuals, blacks, etc.) always lost. This was the America they wanted the world to see and believe, but it was not the real America and never was, so we move on to San Francisco, California.
As a city, San Francisco is not any more “real” than LA or Nashville, but it was a place that attracted young Americans weaned on the subversive ideas of the beats and hungry for a reality more authentic than what satisfied their parents (the aging Greatest Generation.) We hear early strains of their discontent in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” discontent that broiled in a stew of drugs, youthful idealism, free sex, and left-wing principles — ultimately producing the hippy movement and their magnum opus, San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love.
The city also produced some of the country’s greatest revolutionary musicians, most of whom can trace their roots back to the fusion of blues, folk, and American roots music that Guthrie cultivated. Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and The Jefferson Airplane perfected their San Francisco sound in the foggy city, as did Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, whose song “Hot Rod Lincoln” is an uptempo, updated Rockabilly cousin of Guthrie’s “Talking Dustbowl Blues.”
No tour of San Francisco music would be complete without taking a psychedelic side trip with the Grateful Dead, whose iconic lead guitarist Jerry Garcia learned his craft as a folk musician, cutting his musical teeth on Guthrie and Dylan songs. “Truckin’” is one of the band’s better-known songs, capturing the spirit of restless rambling common to Guthrie’s hobo lifestyle and music. But it is another Grateful Dead song, written by Garcia and beat lyricist Robert Hunter, that became one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that shaped the music of my generation. We are speaking of “Uncle John’s Band” from the band’s 1970 Workingman’s Dead album, a song that hints at the beginning of the end of the hippy movement, now dormant.
A Long Strange Trip
Our tour is almost over, but we have one more stop, Seattle, Washington, home of Nirvana and the Museum of Pop Culture, dedicated to “the ideas and risk taking that fuel contemporary popular culture.” I like the museum for their mission, and also because they feature a permanent exhibit on Jimi Hendrix, a musician who influenced the last part of the 20th century as much as Guthrie influenced the first part.
One of the great Hendrix songs, still widely heard today, is Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The song was one of Hendrix’ early hits and contributed to his becoming one of the most successful musicians in rock and roll history. A case can be made that without Woody Guthrie, there would be no Dylan, no Hendrix, no Elvis, no Neil Young, no Kurt Cobain, no Grateful Dead, or even no Miley Cyrus, if you can accept it. Without Guthrie, there would be no rock and roll, and so there would be no America as we know it.
Pastures of Plenty. It’s just a song, but then, it’s not. It’s about a land, a movement, and an experiment that is not yet over. As recently as a few weeks ago, just before the 2016 US presidential election, one commenter on the song’s YouTube feed spoke with the same passion and conviction we hear in Guthrie’s songs, saying:
Woody stood for something. Don’t let some fascist reality TV show real estate developer take that something away. Get out and vote. You may not like your choice but the other choice could be so much worse. We are coming to the point where cynicism leads to vapidness leads to anarchy leads to dictatorship and oligarchy. Your vote is your slingshot to that Goliath. Use it before it is too late.
And so we close our tour with the words of the great American himself, from Guthrie’s famous song “This Land is Your Land,” which rocker Bruce Springsteen referred to as “just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written.”
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
Saw below me the golden valley
This land was made for you and me
Indeed Mr. Guthrie. Indeed.
Brant Huddleston is the author of the suspense/thriller novel Map of Dreams, and the non-fiction business book How to Build a Robust Tourism Economy Using Mobile Technology: A Non-Technical Guide for Executives, Tour Operators, and EconDev Professionals. He lives in Richmond, Virginia near his kids, grandkids, and Fender Stratocaster.