Discovering Woody Guthrie

By Terri Hendrix

(LSM Aug/Sept 2010/vol. 3 – Issue 5)

“I lived in a place called Okfuskee
And I had a little girl in a holler tree
I said, ‘Little girl, it’s plain to see
Ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Ain’t nobody that can sing like me.’”
— “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (Lyrics by Woody Guthrie)

Several years ago, I was invited to participate in a production, hosted by Jimmy Lafave, called “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway,” which featured the music and writing of Woody Guthrie. A handful of other artists were involved, and it was an honor to have been asked to join them. I was to do both “Car Car” and “Pastures of Plenty,” and I quickly set about learning not only my two assigned songs, but also studying up to better familiarize myself with Woody Guthrie in general.

I knew I had some serious catching up to do. Although I had long since determined I was a “folk singer,” I had always brushed off Woody Guthrie’s music. As sacrilegious as this is to admit, I’d find my eyeballs glued to the ceiling when any song of his other than “This Land Is Your Land” would come up on my Smithsonian Folkways recordings. I just didn’t get it.

“She said, ‘It’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly.’
Yes my little girly that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Way over yonder in the minor key
There ain’t nobody that can sing like me.”

I picked through my music library, listened to his songs, and still, much to my dismay, couldn’t get what the hype was about. I felt guilty just thinking this, as though I’d committed a folk crime, so I kept it to myself. But deep down, I knew I was missing something that I needed to grasp, not only for the sake of the Woody tribute I’d committed myself to playing, but for my own art as well. Many of my peers claimed their writing improved after sinking their teeth into his catalogue.

My saving grace came by way of the purchase of a CD called Folkways: The Original Vision, with songs by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. I’ll never forget the day I popped the CD in my car stereo and drove around San Marcos running errands. The song “Car Car” came on, and I about lost it. I’d heard this song before, but this time, it really hit home. Here was this folk icon, doing what voice instructors these days call “lip flutters,” by way of a kids tune. I’m pretty sure when Woody wrote this song for his grandkids, he was unaware that making engine sounds with your lips was a vital part of warming up your voice before a show.

Wrapping up my to-do list, I sat in my car with the CD playing and my AC on high, reluctant to return home because the air conditioning unit in my house had quit again. The blast of cool air felt good on my skin. I opened up the CD and took the liner notes out of the jewel case just as Will Geer kicked into a spoken word piece Woody had written about songwriting:

I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you’re just born to lose, bound to lose, no good to nobody, no good for nothin’, ’cause you’re either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that …” By the time Geer got to the part where Woody writes, “I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood,” I was pumping my fist in the air and yelling “Yeah!” The words touched my soul because I felt the same way he did about songwriting — but had been unable to put my own feelings to words. He nailed my convictions and did so with huevos. There was no mealy mouthed, lily-livered, yellow-bellied flip-flopping in the muse of Woody Guthrie, and I found that immensely gratifying.

When I finally returned home, I spun every recording with his name on it in my music library. It didn’t take me long to discover why he’d been labeled a socialist by some and a “Dust Bowl Troubadour” by others: because Woody spoke the truth and backed it up with music and essays about his experiences during the Great Depression. With the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” displayed like a neon sign on his guitar, he’d come to challenge government and corporate greed while championing civil rights. That night, after listening to his music and researching all I could about Woody Guthrie online, I practiced my two songs with a child-like excitement I’d not had in years when diving into new material.

“We walked down by the Buckeye Creek
To see the frog eat the goggle-eye bee
To hear the west wind whistle to the east
Oh my little girly will you let me see
Way over yonder where the wind blows free
Nobody can see in our holler tree
And there ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Way over yonder in the minor key …”

The more I listened, watched, read and marinated in all things Woody Guthrie, the more I realized he was anything but a saint. But it didn’t alter my opinion of him one bit. I was booked for another presentation of the “Ribbon of Highway” show, then another, and each time I heard the resounding voice of songwriter Bob Childers (who sadly passed away in 2008) recite excerpts of Guthrie’s essays, I became a little more emotionally attached to Woody Guthrie. One only had to study his work to comprehend he was a deep soul — and dark too. It’s rumored he wrote the song “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” about his mother, who suffered and died in a mental institution from Huntington’s disease — a disorder in which certain nerve cells in the brain waste away, or degenerate.

“Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it on the she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Ain’t nobody that can sing like me.”

Huntington’s disease can be passed down through families, and on Oct. 3, 1967, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie would die from complications of the same sickness that claimed his mother.

Whenever people sing songs with conviction, be they political (“Pastures of Plenty”), deeply personal (“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”) or even just for kicks (“Car Car”) they’re in fact, in some small way, paying tribute to musicians like Woody Guthrie by being true to their muse. Every July, right around Woody’s birthday, folks come from far and wide to celebrate his legacy at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Held in his hometown of Okemah, Okla., the free festival lasts an entire weekend, with the music often spilling off the stage and into the parking lot for after hour jams with folks like the legendary David Amram and guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware.

“Now I have walked a long, long ways
And I still look back to my Tanglewood days
I’ve led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying ain’t nobody that can sing like me
Way over yonder in the minor key
Ain’t nobody that can sing like me.”

On Friday, July 16, 98 years (and two days) after Guthrie’s birth and almost 43 years since his passing, I stepped onto the Pastures of Plenty Stage at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, and sang “Pastures of Plenty.” During my performance, a lightning storm gathered off in the distance as the crowd fanned their faces in the sweltering heat. But I knew why perfectly sensible people left the comfort of their homes to dig their lawn chairs into the red dirt and tough it out in a crowd this size — with a heat advisory in effect.

We’d gathered here to pull the essence of all that was Woody Guthrie out of the past and into the moment. In celebrating Woody’s birthday party — with an electrical storm, to boot, more than likely from the soles of Woody’s feet up in heaven as we danced around his “Atom Fire” — we were able to fill a little bit of the void his passing left with music … at least for the weekend.

Sing, Woody, sing. I hear the echo of your voice. You haunt me.

“Way over yonder in the minor key Ain’t nobody that can sing like me.”


Contribute toward the fight against a disease for which there is no cure:
Oklahoma Chapter
Huntington’s Disease Society of America
37 NE 63rd, Oklahoma City, OK 73105