Guest author Dan Aloi: Just like Tom Joad’s impassioned vow near the end of The Grapes of Wrath, as long as there is injustice and inequality, Woody Guthrie will be there. One of the Oklahoma native's songs from 1940, “The Jolly Banker,” lampoons predatory lending and is topical and socially relevant nearly 70 years later. The rock band Wilco recorded the song and and released it online May 1 on the request of Nora Guthrie, who administers her father’s archives.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy told NPR in April: “A couple of months ago when things really started to get hairy financially and economically for the country, that song had begun to get a little bit of attention, and she felt like somebody was going to cover it. She called us because she wanted it to be us. … It's geared towards increasing an awareness of what sometimes people miss when they're being preyed upon.”
The song is available for download for a $2 minimum donation to the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, at <http://www.wilcoworld.net/guthrie/index.php>
Wilco and Billy Bragg released two collaborative albums of unrecorded Guthrie songs, “Mermaid Avenue” (1998) and “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II” (2000), both well worth hearing. Bragg has said that “you’d have to go back to Walt Whitman” to find an American poet to equal Guthrie. Other artists including The Klezmatics, Blackfire and Ellis Paul have also recorded songs from the archives.
Guthrie died in 1967 of complications from Huntington’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that prevented him from singing and playing – but not writing - for many years.
A new boxed set of recently discovered Guthrie master recordings, “My Dusty Road,” will be released Aug. 25 on Rounder Records.
Further reading, media and resources:
“Woody Guthrie: A Life” by Joe Klein (1980, Random House) – the definitive biography
“Man in the Sand” (DVD) – Chronicles the “Mermaid Avenue” project
Guthrie's autobiography, "Bound for Glory" (1943)
Ry Cooder sang several Dust Bowl ballads on his first two Reprise albums, “Ry Cooder” (1970) and “Into the Purple Valley” (1972). For an essay on his adaptations of the songs and the history behind them, see <http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/easyrider/data/CoodDsBl.htm>.
“Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California” by Peter La Chappelle (2007, University of California Press)
Cornell CyberTower Study Room: Woody Guthrie: His Life, Times, and Music