As new collections mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, it's time to reaffirm the value of this genuine American voice.
Woody Guthrie, the author of a song nearly as ubiquitous as "Happy Birthday," would have turned 100 this week.
The problem with the long view in music is that the subject can come across as a little blurry. In the case of Guthrie, his songbook is vast to the point of daunting, and that one song, "This Land Is Your Land," is more recognizable than Guthrie himself.
The best way to get a sense of Guthrie is to sit down with his recordings and have no distractions. Four volumes released as "The Asch Recordings" -- recorded by Moses Asch in the 1940s -- are an obvious starting point, and they dutifully touch on the breadth of Guthrie's talent and abilities as a songwriter.
"Woody at 100," out this week, is a well-curated retro-spective. Also highly recommended for depth is Joe Klein's "Woody Guthrie: A Life," which is one of the great music biographies. What follows are a few cultural connections to, and pieces of biographical context for, a genuinely American voice.
"This Land Is Your Land": Guthrie's most recognizable song is more complex than the grade-school jingle it has become. The song was a response to "God Bless America," which Guthrie had grown tired of hearing. Its pro-trespassing verse tends to get left out, although Neil Young just released a version of the song that restores it.
Woodrow Wilson: Naming a newborn after a president seems quaint these days. Naming a newborn after a governor from another state seems ridiculous. But that's what happened when Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912. Wilson was, at the time, governor of New Jersey. Guthrie was born two weeks after a contentious Democratic convention during which Wilson emerged as a surprise nominee.
Bob Dylan: Guthrie's great- est protégé would visit him in his final years when Guthrie was institutionalized at Grey- stone Hospital in Morristown, N.J., taking a 90-minute bus ride from New York to bring him cigarettes and play Guthrie's songs for him. In his book "Chronicles," Dylan called Guthrie "the true voice of the American spirit," a variation of a comment made about Guthrie by novelist John Steinbeck: "There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit."
Kids music: Guthrie was hip to it early and had a gift for it. He made an album of songs for children way back in 1946.
Protest music: Guthrie felt called to give voice to those he believed had none, and in doing so birthed the rabble-rousing songwriter archetype. Among his many, many students are Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Todd Snider and that Dylan guy.
"This machine kills fascists": The message Guthrie pasted onto his guitars has been co-opted and parodied countless times by musicians wanting to make a statement or a joke. The band Anti-Flag used the phrase as a song title.
Billy Bragg/Wilco: Nora Guthrie opened up her father's archives, which included many lyrics without music, which Bragg and Wilco provided on two festive "Mermaid Avenue" albums. Others have done likewise since.
Family: Guthrie's family history is remarkable for a Faulknerian depth of tragedy. Huntington's disease is a hereditary, profoundly awful neurological affliction that contributed to Guthrie's early demise (he was 55), as well as that of his mother. It also took two of his eight children.
Fires claimed Guthrie's sister and his 4-year-old daughter. Two of his children were killed in auto accidents.
A necessary counterpart to that cursedness is a familial joy in sharing music. Daughter Nora has done a remarkable job preserving his legacy with the New York-based Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. Son Arlo has enjoyed a successful career as a folk singer for more than 40 years. And granddaughter Sarah Lee is also a singer-songwriter, with several albums to her credit.