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Where Woody Guthrie's Anti-Commercial Legacy has Lived On

Of all the tributes to Woody Guthrie that I’ve seen or heard about in this year of his centennial—including an exuberant concert at Brooklyn College and an extravagant gala at the Kennedy Center—the only surprising one took place last Wednesday evening at the Cabaret Convention in New York. The event, its mercantile name notwithstanding, is a series of glitzy concerts by (mostly) serious-minded nightclub performers, staged annually under the auspices of the Mabel Mercer Foundation. Created and run for decades by the late dean of the Manhattan cocktail establishment, Donald Smith, the convention is glitzing onward now under the leadership of K.T. Sullivan, a singer whose work embodies Smith’s ideal of urbanity, high style, and cheeky wit. Sullivan, who comes from a musical family in Oklahoma, found herself with a last-minute cancellation on opening night, and called on her brother Tim, a country-folk singer, to fill in. (Another Sullivan sibling is the criminally under-appreciated jazz singer Stacy Sullivan, who has performed at the convention in other years.) With the Guthrie centennial providing the hook, Tim Sullivan moseyed onto the stage of Jazz at Lincoln Center with an acoustic guitar and a Stetson, and led the audience of 1,200 silkily bedecked and bejeweled Cole Porter buffs in a sing-along to “This Land Is Your Land.” The scene, in its aesthetic dissonance, showed how radically Guthrie and his disciples have transformed popular music, displacing the rarefied cosmopolitanism of pop rooted in high-rise society with the plain-spoken earthiness of pop grounded in rural America, and it drove home to me the almost Quixotic valor in Donald Smith’s many years of work to preserve a set of musical values he cherished long after they had lost their popularity, tainted as elitist and effete.

Tim Sullivan, like Pete Seeger in the climax of the Brooklyn College concert a couple of weeks earlier, made a point to perform all six of the verses that Guthrie had written when he had initially drafted the song in a hotel room off Times Square, in 1940. (Guthrie, as always, used a melody from another song, in this case the Carter Family’s “This World’s on Fire,” which, I have no doubt, took the tune from yet another song.) When “This Land Was Your Land” was finally published, in a 25-cent pamphlet issued in 1945, it was missing its two most politically charged verses: one a critique of private ownership, the other a plea for relief from hunger. Today, the ownership verse seems especially potent and timely:

There was a high wall
That tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said ‘Private Property
But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me

At Brooklyn College, Seeger introduced the song by saying that it had become popular without record sales or radio play—that is, without submitting to the terms of the commercial music business. The facts are not so simple. Guthrie, who became well known as the star of a commercial radio show in Los Angeles, did indeed record “This Land Is Your Land,” and so did dozens of others, including the folk-pop acts the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and Trini Lopez, who sold millions of records. Still, Seeger’s point, taken poetically, speaks to a key element of Guthrie’s legacy: His deep, not-so-vaguely Socialist cynicism toward business and private ownership. He wrote often, in his letters and newspaper column for The Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper, about the corrupting effect of commercial interests in the music made for Broadway, the movies, and Hit Parade radio. He tended, in his writing, to be sweeping and vague, but made his case eloquently in the blunt simplicity of the songs he created with little cooperation from the mainstream record industry. Guthrie, by giving voice to the words unwritten on the back side of the “Private Property” sign, was one of the fathers of free culture before it was a movement, the Lawrence Lessig of the guitar.

Indeed, both Woody Guthrie and the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer endure mainly as symbols to audiences little engaged with the actual music they made. I admire them both and appreciate what each represented—I have the picture sleeve to a Mabel Mercer single on display in a shelf in my house. But I can’t remember the last time I put on a CD by either Guthrie or Mercer until this week, in preparation for this piece. The truth is, both Guthrie and Mercer made music that represents their aesthetics in states distilled to such essences that their sounds are jolting to our ears. We’ve been conditioned by Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, the Jersey boys who idolized Guthrie and Mercer, respectively, and translated them for consumption by the broader public. As Sinatra said, “Mabel Mercer taught me everything I know.”

Here are the originals: Guthrie, in the only two surviving film clips of him performing— Guthrie singing “Ranger’s Command” in 1945, and Guthrie, with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, doing “John Henry”—and Mercer, performing “Where, Oh Where,” from the musical Out of This World, Cole Porter’s adaptation of the Plautus play Amphitryon, at a New York supper club called Cleo’s in the late 1970s.