July 12, 2012
Guest: Jeff Place & Ed Cray
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")
WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) This land is your land, and this land is my land, from California to the New York island. From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream water, this land was made for you and me.
GROSS: Saturday marks the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth. He had an enormous impact on American music. His songs and talking blues about the people displaced by the dust storms of the '30s, the migrant workers, the unions, the disparity between rich and poor and the beauty of our country influenced Pete Seeger and the entire folk music revival.
You can hear Guthrie's influence in early Bob Dylan songs. Guthrie's songwriting and performing were cut short by Huntington's disease, which ended his life in 1967. My guests are Ed Cray, whose 2004 biography of Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has been published in a new edition, and Jeff Place, who co-produced the new three CD box set "Woody at 100." Place is the archivist for the Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The version of "This Land is Your Land" that we were just listening to from the new box set was recorded in 1944, but that version was shelved until it was released decades later by the Smithsonian. The version most people know omits this verse about private property.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted, it said private property. But on the backside, it didn't say nothing, this land was made for you and me. When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling and the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling. A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting, this land was made for you and me.
(Singing) This land is your land, and this land is my land from California, to the New York Island. From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me.
GROSS: That's Woody Guthrie, singing "This Land is Your Land," recorded in 1944. Jeff Place, Ed Cray, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think it's fair to say lots of people know this song, but they don't necessarily know the version that we just heard. What is the story behind the version that we just heard?
JEFF PLACE: Well, the story on that is Woody Guthrie was traveling around, you know, post-Depression, and he'd keep hearing Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" everywhere. And he listened to the lyrics and thought it really didn't address his people, the Okies, the disenfranchised, the Arkies and what was happening in their world.
So as a sort of response to Kate Smith's song, he wrote a song called "God Blessed the America for You and Me" in 1940. And, you know, it morphed a bit and changed, but the original version had a couple verses that we don't normally associate with that song, including one we just heard, which mentions, you know, a sign that said private property, the other side didn't say nothing, that side belonged to you and me.
What happened was in the late - because Moses Asch was putting out a children's record in the late '40s, he actually - Woody re-recorded the thing without those two verses in it. So that became the version of "This Land is Your Land" we all know.
GROSS: So this is a song that everybody knows - well, maybe not everybody but that lots of people know. And Ed, in your book, you write how the song became popularized. How did it spread?
ED CRAY: It was really popularized by Pete Seeger, and he had to put together a series of church concerts, synagogue concerts, children's concerts always, here and there. I first heard him in a nursery school, in fact. But the point was that he was making a living doing that, but whenever he appeared, he played Woody Guthrie's songs.
GROSS: Jeff, do you have anything you want to add to that?
PLACE: Yeah, I think also Pete - the repertoire Pete had, those things started appearing in various schoolbooks for kids that grew up, you know, in the '50s and '60s and also summer camps. A lot of these summer camps in the Northeast, which a lot of the kids who went to those camps became sort of the folk singers that made records later on heard "This Land Is Your Land" a lot.
GROSS: Yeah, I think that's true.
GROSS: I went to camp, yeah. So let's talk about why you're both so interested in Woody Guthrie. Jeff, let's start with you. You've just put out this new centennial box set of Woody Guthrie recordings, with, you know, a book of essays, including an essay by you. What do you see as Woody Guthrie's importance in American music?
PLACE: You know, I was one of those kids who grew up, you know, in the '60s, hearing him - my parents playing him and stuff. And when I started working at the Smithsonian 25 years ago, I started working with his actual materials: his lyric sheets and the actual audio and digitizing it.
And, you know, just the more I listened, the more I was impressed by, you know, the amount of stuff that he created and how good it was. I think that, you know, that because, you know, Pete Seeger and others, you know, popularizing Woody, he became sort of, you know, the image of, you know, the - what later on people like Bob Dylan and, you know, singer-songwriters kind of got, you know, the great forefather of that kind of sound.
You know, after, like, Woody and the people who came along following him like Dylan, up to this day, the idea of writing your own songs on, you know, guitar and singing them, you know, about things you cared about, you know, it's something that we kind of all, you know, know and expect. It's not - you know, it's there now. And Woody, I think, was one of the first people really, you know, to do that and became an important figure because of that.
GROSS: Ed Cray, what do you think is Woody Guthrie's importance in American music? How did he change it?
CRAY: I think if you understand Woody, first of all there was this sense of patriotism, his optimism throughout his songs. His love of country is incredibly song. Those are the characteristics I think Woody imbued in his songs.
GROSS: A lot of Woody Guthrie songs were about the Dust Bowl and about the aftereffects of that, and the Dust Bowl was the area of the United States, including his home state Oklahoma, that was hit in the '30s by a drought, and because of the drought and soil erosion, dust, like soil, like just sheets of it would just, like - masses of it would spread through the sky and just engulf people in darkness. It sounds like they were terrifying storms.
Some people thought it was the end of the world. In fact in "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," Woody Guthrie sings about people who thought those dust storms were the end of the world. Was his family personally affected by it, by those - "Dust Bowl Ballads?" And I know a lot of the songs were about, like, the post-Dust Bowl, the migrants who moved from the Dust Bowl areas to California and other places.
But was he and his family personally affected by it, the dust storms?
CRAY: Woody's father was a real estate investor, and he lost a farm a day, as Woody put it, for 50 days in the 1920 crash after the World War I.
GROSS: So Woody Guthrie was middle class until he was about eight years old, and then he was poor after that?
CRAY: That's quite correct.
GROSS: And so what about the dust storms? How did that affect the family in Oklahoma?
CRAY: I don't think it affected them in Oklahoma. They were in Pampa, Texas, by that time. And there were dust storms in Pampa, but not as bad.
GROSS: So why did the dust storm have such an impact on him as a songwriter?
CRAY: Well, the first song that Woody wrote about the Dust Bowl was "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," which you mentioned. The second - but most of Woody's songs about the Dust Bowl really deal with the refugees who went to California, Arizona, et cetera.
And these were people who Woody identified with, because he, Woody himself, was desperately poor at the time.
GROSS: So let's hear one of his Dust Bowl songs. Why don't we hear "Do Re Mi," and this is from a radio broadcast. Just tell us a little bit about the context of this recording of "Do Re Mi."
PLACE: This actually was - Woody Guthrie recorded like five songs on these Presto disks, they were kind of air checks or demos for the radio, it wasn't actually, you know, on the radio as such. And one of them - they were all, you know, things he was writing at the time, and one of them was "Do, Re, Mi," you know, which was one of his, you know, important "Dust Bowl Ballads" he recorded later for RCA.
But the L.A. version actually has the - it's slightly different words-wise, and it sort of, you know, reflects what he was like, you know, performing them on the radio, you know, in 1939 before he moved east and went to New York.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. So this is Woody Guthrie, and this recording is included on the new box set "Woody at 100" in honor of his centennial, the centennial of his birth is this Saturday. I guess Jeff Place co-produced box set. And - is Ed Cray, and his biography of Woody Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has just been reissued in paperback. So here we go with "Do, Re, Mi."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO, RE, MI")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) Thousands of folks back East, they say leavin' home every day, beatin' the hot and dusty way to the California line. Cross the desert sands they roll, trying to get out of the old Dust Bowl. They think they're coming to a sugar bowl, but here's what they find.
(Singing) The police at the port of entry say: You're number 14,000 for today. Oh, if you ain't got the do, re, mi, folks, you ain't got the do, re, mi. Better hang on in beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee. California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot, if you ain't got the do, re, mi.
(Singing) If you want to buy you a home or a farm, that can't do nobody harm, or take your vacation by the mountains or sea. Don't trade your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are, you better take this little tip from me 'cause the governor on the radio today jumped up to the microphone, and he did say: If you ain't got the do, re, mi, boys, you ain't got the do, re, mi. Better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
(Singing) California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot if you ain't got the do, re, mi.
GROSS: That's "Do, Re, Mi," recorded in 1939. That version is included in the new box set called "Woody at 100." My guest Jeff Place co-produced that Smithsonian Folkways box set and wrote one of the essays in the book that accompanies it. Also with me is Ed Cray. His biography of Woody Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has just been published in a new edition.
So Woody Guthrie really identified with migrants and migrant workers. He, you know, moved around to a lot of places himself, but he wasn't a migrant worker per se. I mean, he was a performer. He performed on the radio, he, you know, performed in all kinds of places. Why did he feel so connected to migrant workers and so, kind of, inspired by them in a sense that so many of his songs were about them?
PLACE: Well, when Woody was on the air in Los Angeles, you know, he also - there's a guy who had a show, Ed Robbin, also who was very political, and left-wing, and Woody also started getting involved in writing a column for The Daily Worker.
And he got sent out as a roving correspondent for a while, out - basically out to the camps in California. And, you know, he saw, you know, performed, and he saw what was happening firsthand, how these people were living, you know, and it really kind of affected him, you know, politicized him more than he had been.
And that was part of it. Then even, you know, traveling on when he did the Bonneville Power songs up north, Washington and Oregon, you know, a couple years later, you know, gain he saw migrant workers and how, you know, how they were living, and it just really kind of affected him. So, you know, he wrote to that.
GROSS: We're celebrating the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth with Jeff Place, co-producer of the new box set "Woody at 100," and Ed Cray, author of the Guthrie biography "Ramblin' Man." More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Saturday is the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth. My guest, Jeff Place, co-produced the new box set "Woody at 100." Ed Cray is the author of the Guthrie biography "Ramblin' Man."
Why don't we play another song here? And this is "Pastures of Plenty," which I know is a favorite for both of you. Jeff, tell us what this song is actually about.
PLACE: "Pastures of Plenty" was one of the things he wrote when he was hired, actually, by the federal government for I think it was 20....
CRAY: Thirty days.
PLACE: Thirty days, there we go, and to write songs that were going to go along with a movie. They were making a sort of a - I don't want to say propaganda, but it was, you know, to sort of get people to support, you know, building dams on the Columbia River, you know, to create hydroelectric power, and it would create jobs for some of the people Woody cared about.
And among the songs he wrote, he apparently wrote, like, a song a day during the course of the month, some of his best songs, "Grand Coulee Dam." But "Pastures of Plenty" has always been one of my favorite. I just really like the imagery. But it was about some of the people he saw up in the Pacific Northwest, some of the migrants, and used an old folk song, "Pretty Polly," with a beautiful melody and put these - it's really great Woody Guthrie prose. It's like some of the, you know - like I say, some of my favorite stuff he's written.
GROSS: But Ed, would you talk about how this song is about, you know, the migrant workers, it's also a very patriotic song. Do you want to talk about that?
CRAY: If you listen to the last verse of this song, this land I'll defend with my life if it be, for these pastures of plenty must always be free, this was written in May of 1940. The Weimar was already moving across Europe, and London was under siege by the German bombers. They knew war was coming.
And Woody, indeed, did serve later in the Merchant Marine, a point which is often not known.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear "Pastures of Plenty," and this version is on the new box set "Woody at 100" in celebration of his centennial. The centennial of his birth is this Saturday. So here's "Pastures of Plenty."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PASTURES OF PLENTY")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed. My poor feet has traveled a hot dusty road. Out of your Dust Bowl and westward we rolled, and your deserts was hot and your mountains was cold.
(Singing) I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes, slept on the ground in the light of your moon. On the edge of the city you'll seen us and then, we come with the dust, and we go with the wind.
(Singing) California and Arizona, I make your crops. And its north up to Oregon to gather your hops, dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine to set on your table your light sparkling wine.
(Singing) Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground from that Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down. Every state in the Union us migrants have been. We'll work in this fight, and we'll fight till we win.
(Singing) Well, it's always we rambled, that river and I. All along your green valley, I will work till I die. My land I'll defend with my life if it be 'cause my pastures of plenty must always be free.
GROSS: That's "Pastures of Plenty," and that version is on the new box set "Woody at 100" in celebration of the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth, which is this Saturday. My guest, Jeff Place, co-produced the box set, co-wrote the book that accompanies it. Also with us is Ed Cray. His biography of Woody Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has just been published in a new paperback edition.
So some of the songs we've been hearing were written by Woody Guthrie when he was in California. After California, he moved to New York, and, you know, at some point he becomes, you know, part of a larger political movement. What was the part of the movement that he became active in? Ed Cray, I'll let you answer that one.
CRAY: Woody was left of center, and indeed he was led left of center by a group of people, Harry Hay in - who was a member - later formed the Mattachine Society, along party - communist party lines with cells. These people were all members of the left, and whether they were members of the party or not is really immaterial.
There was an extended group of them, ranging from Jackson Pollack on one hand to Alan Lomax on the other, who were in New York City at the time, and Woody fell in with them.
GROSS: I would imagine it would be difficult for him to fit into any movement, because he seemed like such an individual, do you know what I mean, like doing things his way, his time, picking up when he wanted to, picking up and leaving when he wanted to.
CRAY: Well, that's very true. In fact, Bess Hawes put it very bluntly. She said: Woody was not a member of the party, the Communist Party. Could you see Woody Guthrie selling newspapers on a Brooklyn street corner?
GROSS: Is that what he would have had to do? Is that...?
CRAY: Yeah, that was what CP members did, amongst other chores.
PLACE: Well, Woody Guthrie was - supposedly when he was filling out a form, I forgot what he was applying for, but he was asked to state his religion, and he said all.
GROSS: That's good. We'll talk more about Woody Guthrie with Jeff Place and Ed Cray in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Saturday is the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth. We're talking about his life and music with Ed Cray, the author of the Guthrie biography "Ramblin' Man," and Jeff Place, the co-producer of the new box set "Woody at 100." Place also co-wrote the accompanying book. One of the CDs in the box set collects recordings from radio shows, including this one from 1944 during World War II, when Guthrie was on a tour of duty with the Merchant Marine. His ship was torpedoed and he was put ashore in England. While he waited for an outgoing ship, he was a guest on the BBC radio show "The Children's Hour."
(SOUNDBITE OF BBC RADIO SHOW, "THE CHILDREN'S HOUR")
KATIE STONE: Hello, children. Here's another program of songs from the United States of America. This afternoon, we've got in the studio Woody Guthrie, who is a very well-known singer of folk songs over here. He tells me that he's been in 45 of the 48 states. Though at the moment, you're in the Merchant Navy, aren't you, Woody?
GUTHRIE: Washing dishes on the Liberty Ship.
STONE: And during his leave Woody has come in to make a program for you. Let's hear a bit more about your travels. Where did you start? How did it come that you were...
GUTHRIE: Well, I got started in Oklahoma. That's where I was born. Population down there is one-third Indians, one-third Negroes and one-third white people. So I hit the road when I was about 13 years old doing all kinds of odd jobs all over the country and traveling amongst all these kind of people and I actually picked up a lot of songs and a lot of funny different versions of a lot of folk songs and ballads. And I've been traveling all around at depots and bus stations and waterfronts and cafes and everything else, saloons picking up nickels.
GROSS: Woody Guthrie on the BBC during World War II. Let's get back to our interview with Ed Cray and Jeff Place.
Why don't we play another song here? And this is like a World War II version of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh." And "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh" is a song he wrote about the dust storms during the Dust Bowl and how some people even thought it was like the end of the world and would basically say OK, end of the world, so long, it's been good to know yuh.
Jeff, how did he change the song for World War II?
PLACE: Well, he took out all the Dust Bowl references and, you know, he started off with, you know, the war has just begun, you know, I'm going to go down and sign up, you know, so long, it's been good to know you. It's a big war that's got to be won, we got to be moving along and stuff. The thing, you know, that's interesting about this is Woody did this sort of stuff all the time, you know, and he changed the words because the reason he wrote these songs was for a purpose. So I think if he had like not gotten sick and lived longer and had been productive, you know, that song could've turned into all sorts of things like, you know, Korean War, Vietnam War, civil rights, you name it. I mean he changed it again in the early '50s for his friends, The Weavers, who were going to record it as sort of a pop hit and he took out all of the topical and protests he kind of - for both the war version and a Dust Bowl version and, you know, they did it as pretty much a straight, you know, pop song. So, you know, his songs were kind of malleable, you know?
GROSS: Yeah. Which is interesting. And he was OK with that, you know, yeah.
PLACE: He encouraged it.
GROSS: He encouraged it. So this is his World War II version of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," another recording included on the new box set "Woody at 100," celebrating the centennial of his birth, which is Saturday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG, IT'S BEEN GOOD TO KNOW YUH")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) I got the news that the war had begun. Straight for the Army hall that I run. All of the people in my home town was a running up and a running down singing: So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. There's a mighty big war that's got to be won. We'll get back together again.
Crowd was packed by the railroad track. People was yelling and patting my back. While the engineer rung his bell, I hugged all the mothers and kissed all the gals, singing: So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. There's a mighty big war that's got to be won. We'll get back together again.
I got to the camp and I learned how to fight. Fascists in daytime, mosquitoes at night. I got my orders to cross the blue sea, so I waved goodbye tothe gals I could see, singing: So long, it's been good to know you. So long...
GROSS: So that's Woody Guthrie recorded in the mid-40s during World War II, one of his versions of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh." I have two guests with me. Jeff Place co-produced the new Smithsonian Folkways box set "Woody at 100," which celebrates the centennial of his birth, which is Saturday. And also with me is Ed Cray. His biography of Woody Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has just been published in a new paperback edition.
Jeff, you have been talking about all the different versions of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh" that Woody Guthrie wrote. There's one that's very interesting. Woody Guthrie in New York after World War II had a radio show that was called the "Pipe Smoking Time" radio show because it was sponsored by a pipe tobacco company. And the lyric to the commercial, the jingle he had to sing during the show was: Howdy, friend. Well, it's sure good to know you. Load up your pipe and take your life easy. With Model Tobacco to light up your way, we'll be glad to be with you today.
GROSS: So talk about changing your lyrics.
PLACE: Yeah, I think he was uncomfortable with that. I think, you know, having his stuff commercialized and that's why he didn't last on that show all that long.
GROSS: How did he end up doing that show? This was in New York.
PLACE: Well, he was known in New York, you know, on various radio shows. Alan Lomax, who did all these radio dramas, used Woody Guthrie a lot. And Woody Guthrie had various - he had a show called "Ballad Gazette" on WNEW briefly. The thing you have to - we've been talking about Woody Guthrie's music, but there's also a whole persona of Woody Guthrie, which is sort of he grew up with Will Rogers as sort of the cowboy philosopher. So, you know, that whole part of his show and his radio show is he could actually, starting in LA, you know, he could start, you know, philosophizing about politics and how he felt about things as part of the show. So he'd be on these shows for a while and then he'd like decide that's not what he wanted to do and leave.
GROSS: We're celebrating the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth with Jeff Place, co-producer of the new box set "Woody at 100," and Ed Cray, author of the Guthrie biography "Ramblin' Man."
More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Saturday is the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth. My guest Ed Cray is the author of the Guthrie biography "Ramblin' Man." Jeff Place co-produced the new box set "Woody at 100."
Jeff, I'm going to ask you to choose something from the new box set that is one of the recordings that you helped bring back to life that had, you know, never been released before.
PLACE: Actually one of the songs that Woody used to perform a lot - and he probably used to sing it to his children, was one he did not write - was a song called "Hobo's Lullaby." I mean his son Arlo actually had a sort of a hit record with it later on. When I first started working with the Smithsonian, we were trying to put together a collection of Woody Guthrie based on some songs that had appeared on a Columbia benefit records by rock stars and "Hobo's Lullaby" was one of them and I couldn't find any records that had "Hobo's Lullaby" on it. And I was poking around with these old original, you know, these glass discs, you know, that the stuff was recorded on and found "Hobo's Lullaby," you know, which had, you know, again, people say it didn't exist. So that was kind of a fun one and, you know, it is a great song.
GROSS: OK. Good. Let's hear it. So this is "Hobo's Lullaby." This is Woody Guthrie. The recording is featured on the new box set "Woody at 100," celebrating his centennial, which is on Saturday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOBO'S LULLABY")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) Go to sleep you weary hobo. Let the towns drift slowly by. Listen to the steel rails hummin'. That's the hobo's lullaby. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.
Do not think about tomorrow. Let tomorrow come and go. Tonight you got a nice warm boxcar safe from all this wind and snow. I know the police cause you trouble. They cause trouble everywhere. But when you die and go to Heaven, you'll find no policemen there. So go to sleep you weary hobo...
GROSS: That's Woody Guthrie, and that recording is featured on the new box set "Woody at 100," celebrating his centennial, which is this Saturday. My guest Jeff Place co-produced the box set and the book that goes along with it. My other guest, Ed Cray, is the author of the biography of Woody Guthrie called "Ramblin' Man." And there's a new edition of that that's just been published.
Let's talk about Woody Guthrie's persona. Did he have like a persona that was different from, you know, a persona that he created that was different from the, you know, person that he was when he wasn't on?
CRAY: Woody Guthrie had a persona, a mask that he wore on stage. He - Guy Logsdon - a Guthrie scholar, calls it coon-hunting language. That is to say Woody put on a drawl. Woody was, as within the family, Woody, as is Arlo, was quite literate and didn't drawl. This was a mask he wore onstage. It was part of the act.
GROSS: Jeff, your impressions of that?
PLACE: Woody Guthrie, you know, was born in Oklahoma, you know, and it only had been in the state just for very few years. It was Indian territory. So I mean you are, you know, he grew up in a world where there were like traveling medicine shows and sort of like string bands that played, you know, like barn dance kind of music. Most string bands had a comic character in it, usually the bass player with a blackened out tooth or something who made jokes and Woody adopted a bit of that too, you know? So I think that was kind of he grew up with that as a way of like, you know, being an entertainer. He used it on the radio and that's, you know, what he brought to New York with him as part of this whole like, you know, stage act.
GROSS: Why don't we hear one of his "Talking Blues," which is kind of comic. And this is "Talking Dust Bowl." And it means it's also about like trying to get away from the Dust Bowl, sell his farm for a car and get out. But it is a kind of comic recording. Jeff, do you want to talk about this song and the importance of Woody Guthrie's "Talking Blues" in American music?
PLACE: Well, the "Talking Blues" form, you know, it came out of string band music and I'm sure he had roots in African-American, you know, song before that but it was a comic style of singing. And then, you know, for Woody Guthrie and his whole thing he was doing, it became a perfect empty frame to build these songs on. I mean it was perfect for him to do that kind of rye, sarcastic commentary, you know, really hilarious lines about if that soup had been only like, you know, a little bit thinner a politician might have seen through it. He was full of these kind of one-liners. Like, you know, one time on the radio he said I heard Washington threw a dollar across the Potomac. I guess a dollar must've gone further in those days. So that was all part of his thing. So this really this whole "Talking Blues" style fit perfectly to the thing that Woody Guthrie was doing.
GROSS: OK. So this is "Talking Dust Bowl" and it's another recording featured on the new box set, "Woody at 100."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING DUST BOWL")
GUTHRIE: (Singing) Back in 1927, I had a little farm and I called it heaven. Prices up and the rain come down, and I hauled my crops all into town. I got the money, bought clothes and groceries, fed the kids, took it easy.
The rain had quit and the wind got high, and the black ol' dust storms filled the sky. And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine, and I filled it full of this gas-i-line and started, rollin' and drifting to California.
Way up yonder on a mountain road, I had a hot motor and a heavy load, I's a-goin' pretty fast, I wasn't even stoppin', I's a-bouncin' up and down, like popcorn a-poppin'. Had a breakdown, sort of a nervous bust down of the mechanism there sometime. The en-gine trouble.
Here's way up yonder on a mountain road, I wasn't feelin' so very good and I give this rollin' Ford a shove, an' I's a-gonna coast as far as I could. Commence to rollin', pickin' up speed and there was a hairpin turn and I could make it.
Man alive and I'm a-tellin' you, the fiddles and the guitars really flew. That Ford took off like a flying squirrel and it flew halfway around the world, scattered wives and childrens all over the side of that mountain.
GROSS: That's Woody Guthrie. That recording's featured on the new box set "Woody at 100." My guest Jeff Place co-produced the collection, also co-wrote the book that accompanies it. My guest Ed Cray is the author of a biography of Woody Guthrie called "Ramblin' Man" and this has just been published in a new paperback edition.
One of the things Woody Guthrie is famous for is his children's songs which have endured. So people love his children's songs. How was he as a father? How was he as a family man?
CRAY: It depended on what family you were talking about. His eternal love was his second wife, Marjorie. There's no question about that, and the children that they produced together - Cathy, then Arlo, Joady, and after Tom Joad, and Nora after Woody's mother.
He was a devoted family man there but even there, there was friction, tension. He would wander off, go for cigarettes and not return for two weeks. There was all kinds of problems in the marriage, yes, and they ultimately divorced. So in that sense you could argue Woody was a terrible family man - irresponsible, et cetera.
On the other hand, he was devoted to those children and in fact, the children's songs starting with Cathy were all written for his children.
GROSS: And Arlo, who you mentioned, of course went on to become a famous folk singer himself and Nora is running the Woody Guthrie papers and music archive and doing a lot of work to get younger generations of musicians to record his songs. And she's been putting out lyrics that didn't have melodies and asking, you know, songwriters to write melodies to accompany those lyrics. So she's been very active in furthering her father's legacy.
Woody Guthrie died on Huntington's disease which is genetically inherited. It's a disease that is a degenerative muscle disease that also affects cognition. When did he start getting symptomatic?
PLACE: I think actually Jimmy Longhi, who was one of Woody Guthrie's shipmates in World War II, you know, I was lucky enough to interview him and talk to him while he was still - he was the last guy still alive, pretty much. He wrote a whole book, "Woody, Cisco and Me." And talks about being on the ship one night during World War II and Woody kind of like puffing on a cigarette and says, you know, I feel funny sometimes. You know, I feel like I'm drunk. I think that maybe what my mom has I have. And if you look at the book I just finished, we have all these lyric sheets and drawings and stuff throughout the entire book.
And you look at Woody's, like, his drawings are very kind of detail oriented early and his writing, his script, is beautiful. And you can watch it over the course of the 1940s towards the end is turning almost like - by 1950, it's like an elementary school kid is writing.
GROSS: So I want to end with another Woody Guthrie recording also from the new box set "Woody at 100." And Jeff, I'm going to ask you to introduce "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore."
PLACE: Well, this is "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore," a song that Woody first recorded on these early Presto discs out in Los Angeles in 1939. And it was a song - "I Can't Feel At Home Anymore in This World" was a song by the Carter family that, you know, I always assumed that Woody got it from that.
But I just actually heard a lecture in Los Angeles, a place where Ed and I were just at this conference, where people talked about there was a religious program on the same station on earlier and that was the theme song that they used, the hymn. So that's also a possible place he got it.
But, again, it's him repurposing an old hymn to, like, make it a song about homelessness and the Dust Bowl and what was happening to these migrant workers and the people he knew in California.
GROSS: OK. Thank you both so much. Jeff Place is the co-producer of the new box set "Woody at 100" commemorating the centennial of his birth which is this Saturday. Jeff also wrote the book that accompanies the CDs. He co-wrote it. Also with us has been Ed Cray and his biography of Woody Guthrie, "Ramblin' Man," has just been published in a new paperback edition. Thanks to both of you so much.
CRAY: Thank you, Terry.
PLACE: You're very welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T GOT NO HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE")
GUTHRIE: (singing) I ain't got no home. I am just roaming around. Just a wandering worker and I go from town to town. The police make it hard wherever I may go and I ain't got no home in this world anymore. I'm a traveling down that road so many have gone before, a hundred thousand workers along the ocean shore. A rich man took my home and drove me from my door and I ain't got no home in this world anymore.
GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews "Political Animals," the new TV series starring Sigourney Weaver as a controversial former first lady who becomes secretary of state. Sound familiar? This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: The line between fiction and reality keeps growing thinner. A new TV series premiers Sunday called "Political Animals" starring Sigourney Weaver as an ex-first lady who becomes secretary of state. It was created by Greg Berlanti who also created "Everwood" and was the executive producer on "Brothers and Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money." Our critic-at-large John Powers says that the show is revealing both for what it is and isn't about.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you only knew about America from watching TV, the last few months might lead you to think that women here wield enormous political power. First you had "Game Change," the story of Sarah Palin's attempt to become vice president. Then you had "Veep," in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus's character has accomplished just that. Now comes "Political Animals," a new USA network series about a strong female secretary of state who I suspect even a Martian would realize is based on Hillary Clinton.
Sigourney Weaver stars as Elaine Barrish, a smart, controversial ex-first lady. After losing her party's nomination to a charismatic upstart, Paul Garcetti - played by creepy-handsome Adrian Pasdar - Elaine surprises the world by doing two things. She accepts President Garcetti's offer to become secretary of state, and she divorces her husband, ex-president Bud Hammond, a narcissistic Southerner with zipper-troubles played by the Irish actor Ciaran Hinds with more braying Belfast ham than winning North Carolina charm.
Judging from the vigorous, if overblown pilot, "Political Animals" is about how Elaine juggles her tricky relationships with two different presidents - her boss, whom she finds annoyingly slippery, and her ex, whom she can't quite resist - and how she deals with her two very different sons: Douglas Hammond, played by James Wolk, is the smooth, dutiful one who fits easily into the Beltway ecosystem. In contrast, T.J., played by Sebastian Stan, is gay, does drugs, and can't bear the political life.
More tellingly, perhaps, Elaine also finds herself developing ties to a D.C. reporter, Susan Berg - that's Carla Gugino - who's written nastily about her in the past. Here the two are aboard the secretary of state's plane during a flare up with Iran. Susan asks Elaine what keeps her going.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POLITICAL ANIMALS")
CARLA GUGINO: (as Susan) How do you do it? Even people like me who have criticized you really do admire your resolve.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (as Elaine) My usual answer is that I share the ethos with most Americans. If you work hard and give it everything you've got, tomorrow will be better than today.
GUGINO: (as Susan) And the truth?
WEAVER: (as Elaine) Most of life is hell. It's filled with failure and loss. People disappoint you, dreams don't work out, hearts get broken, innocent journalists die. And the best moments of life, when everything comes together, are few and fleeting. But you'll never get to the next great moment if you don't keep going. So that's what I do. I keep going.
POWERS: "Political Animals" was created by Greg Berlanti, a specialist in family melodrama who clearly cares more about the animal side of Washington - its weaseling and dogged compulsion - than about its actual politics. This is too bad. I've recently been reading "The Passage of Power," the fourth volume of Robert Caro's riveting biography of Lyndon Johnson, a book that makes Berlanti's show feel not just thin but naive.
Caro knows how the political life engages the whole person. He gives us the dirty, low-minded stuff - and LBJ was certainly carnal in every sense - but also the serious daily work of, say, passing civil rights legislation and the moral arguments for doing so. By comparison, "Political Animals" is, well, a political animal. Berlanti knows that film and TV studios don't want to risk alienating their audience by getting into the nuts and bolts of government process, much less by talking ideology.
"The Newsroom" may wave its liberal politics like an Adlai Stevenson banner, but most political movies and shows pointedly do not. "Veep," for instance, is cynical not ideological, while "Game Change" focused on everything about Palin except what she actually believes or why she connects to millions. Even the news coverage of this year's election has spent less time on Obama's and Romney's ideas than on the tiniest tactical details of their campaigns.
Now, it can't be denied that basing a show so clearly on Hillary and Bill betrays a certain failure of imagination. But this, too, is the American way. Our best political novels tend to be based on real people - just think of "All the King's Men" - and few political pairings could be more tempting than the messy Clintons. They turned the White House into a reality show, which Berlanti has now turned into a fictionalized potboiler. Only time will tell whether that's an upgrade.
At the moment, it looks like one for Hillary Clinton, whose reputation has never been higher. She's finally escaped her husband's shadow. If he became the flawed hero of "Primary Colors," she's now the center of a "M*A*S*H" note of a TV series, one that gives her surrogate most of the good lines.
At one point, Elaine is talking to President Garcetti who it's clear has been a bit of a wuss. Before she leaves the Oval Office, she says calmly but crushingly: Someday, sir, it would be nice to working for the man who beat me. I don't believe Secretary of State Clinton has ever said anything remotely like that to President Obama, but it's interesting, don't you think, that in this election year, a new TV show implies that she'd be entitled to do so.
GROSS: John Powers reviews TV and film for Vogue and Vogue.com. "Political Animals" premiers Sunday on USA network.
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