In one era and out the other

No one knew the best and the worst of California like Woody Guthrie did.

He drifted out here during the Dust Bowl era, listening to the stories of the economic refugees. The displaced and hungry came to the “promised land” to be exploited and humiliated by growers, and many migrants were driven from the state. Guthrie took their plight to heart and wrote songs that restored their shaken pride and confidence.

It was while hitchhiking that he was inspired to write the real anthem of this country, “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie had experienced plenty of hard times and personal tragedy, yet this positive song came forth to let everyone know that the promise was still alive and that we all had a piece, from California to the New York island.

One of his more famous songs described life in a California river valley that easily could have been Sacramento. “It’s always we’ve rambled, that river and I. / All along your green valley I’ll work till I die. / My land I’ll defend with my life if it be, / For my Pastures of Plenty must always be free.”

With his simple yet poignant songs, Guthrie inspired a future generation of folk singers, from Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs. And now it seems, a third generation of California singer-songwriters is following in Woody’s worn shoes (see “Sounds like Americana”).

Guthrie was much more than a folk-song writer and performer. He was an accomplished painter, political activist, novelist and journalist. He wrote a column for the communist paper The Daily Worker, and that came back to haunt him in the McCarthy era. He would have gotten at least a chuckle out of our essay (see “FBI nabs suspected bookworm”) and maybe a song out of it.