Thursday, January 19, 2006

LEARNING HOW TO LIVE


Hwy 17
Originally uploaded by tearapen.

Bob Dylan said that you could learn to live by listening to Woody Guthrie songs. Those old folk songs may not be the first place I'd go to learn what I need to know about living, but they make great background music while you're reading your books of wisdom. And long after you close those books, you may find you're still humming along to one of Woody's anthems.

Despite the efforts of people like Dylan and Nanci Griffith, I wonder how many people listen to Woody at all anymore. No matter how many do, it's not enough. He never claimed to be a saint, and his wandering ways must have brought unhappiness to many of those near and dear to him. But the man knew things that a lot of people never get in their lifetimes.
Things we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis.

From riding boxcars and living in migrant camps during the Depression, he learned something about the human spirit that he never allowed success to take away: It resides in the poor and disdained as strongly as it does anywhere else. Maybe stronger. Or as Woody said it:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.

It may seem like the simplest lesson of all, and of course, it's the basis for all the holy books, but it still looks like a rarity when it's truly lived.

Every now and then when I start feeling like a fancy pants, I go out and rent, Bound for Glory, the film version of Woody's autobiography. The other day I was feeling a little too impressed with my author self, so I decided it was time.

Artistically, it may not be the best movie ever made, but it never fails to move me. It brings home the Depression--and what it means to have no work--with heart wrenching clarity. What it means to travel to a distant place, hoping to work for below subsistence wages. What it means to live in grubby migrant camps, and still be able to sing and rejoice at the end of a day.

It's something most of us don't know much about, but Woody did, and he pretty much devoted his life to trying to make us understand how good these people are. How much like you and me.

I particularly love the end of the movie when he walks out of a glitzy hotel where his agent has got him a lucrative deal to play because he'd rather play in the camps for nothing. ..because he doesn't want to lose his connection to the people...because he knows that once you've lost that, you've lost everything.

It's the kind of common wisdom that's sadly uncommon.

36 comments:

rdl said...

Ms. fancy pants you are too funny and so touching.

liz elayne said...

thank you for this reminder...so true that there are some truths we need to be reminded of again and again.

David said...

good post

Danyel said...

loving that guthrie quote.

Debra said...

I admire someone who could be that principled - I wonder how many of us who could say they'd turn down a lucrative book deal if it meant they'd lose connection with the people they write about?

Patry Francis said...

r: if my pants ever get too fancy, I'm sure you'll be around to remind me!

liz: I know I sure do!

david: thanks and hi to your pumpkin friend.

danyel: Me, too!

debra: I'd hate to be put to the test.
And honestly, now that I'm not waitressing much anymore, I've been wondering: where am I going to get my stories? Almost makes me happy I'm working a shift on Saturday night. (emphasis on almost.)

Anonymous said...

there's no doubt his wandering ways made brought unhappiness to many of those near and dear to him.

It's interesting how so many people are good to humanity in the abstract but not so good to those closest to them. I find particularly inspiring those who manage to be considerate of both humanity in the abstract and the particular, since I suspect they are the ones I can learn the most from.

Gabreael said...

Well said.

Gabreael

http://gabreaelsbodymindandspirit.blogspot.com/

Patry Francis said...

anonymous: I don't know whether Woody was good to those close to him or not. They would have to speak on that. My point was only that his wandering--first in search of work during the Depression, and then as a musician, probably hurt some people--especially his first family which broke up as a result. I know him only through the spirit that comes through in his songs and in his writings, and it's a spirit I unreservedly admire.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

There was a song we had been listening to recorded by a guy named Billy Bragg called "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Keys"-- Fantastic and slightly salacious. We hunted it down to see who had written such a fine song, and there it was Woody Guthrie.

He did embody that inspired passion of being a man with his feet planted firmly on the earth.

MB said...

For all his wandering, Woody Guthrie had roots that went way deep. It's that sense of connection he retained to who and what is real that is valuable for the soul. And you, Patry, sound like you are staying connected to the best part of your self. I like this post.

Kerstin said...

Woody Guthrie - I must admit to knowing near to nothing about him. I shall get the movie and start with that.

This post is particularly interesting to me as it reminds me of a conversation I had with my husband only two days ago. He is a very focussed and hard working man, always has been, and he is very successful with it, too. Unlike me he constantly worries about his ability to pay the bills every month, I am so much more happy-go-lucky in that respect and have this blind trust that things will just work out. I asked him why he was like this and he said:

"You remember hearing about the depression era in the 30s? No jobs, low wages, uncertainties about where the next meal comes from and how long will you keep the roof over your head. Extreme hardship that is difficult to imagine for most people these days. But this is how I feel, all the time, worried that losing it all is only a lost paycheck away. I only feel secure if I have no or little debt and some savings in the bank."

My husband is a very humble man, and maybe that is what Woody Guthrie inspires - humbleness. It is an aspired quality, isn't it?

Perfect Virgo said...

I still have the Dylan documentary on tape waiting to be watched. I have not forgotten I promised to let you know my impressions. Now I think I will have time to watch, don't you!

Patry Francis said...

r.d.: I'll have to check out "Way over yonder..." Don't think I know that one.

m.b.: Somehow I'm not surprised that you're a Woody fan.

Kerstin: Your husband sounds like an interesting man--and a wise one. I'll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the film.

p.v.: That's right; you've got no excuses now. You need to go through your neatly organized DVDs and watch that Dylan special.

lucky said...

Woodie also once said: "Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don't change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow."

I think he means that life is constantly evolving. Dealing out a lot of good and bad and everyday we have to make choices that effect an outcome on many.Lets pray we all make good ones like Woody did.

Peter said...

"...but it still looks like a rarity when it's truly lived..."

Ain't that the truth!

Patry Francis said...

rainbow: What a great quote!

Peter: We keep trying though...

colleen said...

Sounds good. I wrote it down. I like a good humbling movie.

I remember the scene in Alice's Resturant when Arlo visits Woody in the hospital.

Patry Francis said...

I don't think I've ever seen Alice's Restaurant. Now I definitely have to make a point of it.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I'm also a Woody Guthrie fan--by chance, the day I read your blog entry I had just been at the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture Web site (looking up Henry Reed fiddle tunes, but that's a different story.)
One thing always leads to another, and I found their "exhibit" of Woody's correspondence. You might enjoy it.
Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I thoroughly enjoyed the link, and learned some things about Woody that I didn't know.

Swirly said...

This is a great reminder, thank you.

Mark Gamon said...

Love Bound for Glory. Love the biography of Woody that Springsteen was telling everybody about a few years back. Love his songs. Love the singers they inspired. Love Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and the Band and Steve Earle and Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark and Tom Waits and John Hiatt and Gillian Welch and that whole awesome tradition of mythic, concerned, surreal, passionate, fabulous songwriting that spills out of the blues and folk and country music alike. Sometimes I think I love this stuff more than life itself: I do know life would be horrible hard ot bear if they took it away.

And here's the rub: (almost) ALL of it is American. You have so much of which to be proud.

Mark Gamon said...

PS: 'Way over yonder in the minor keys' was (I'm 90% certain) a set of Woody lyrics left behind after he died which Billy Bragg then set to music of his own.

I mention this only because Billy IS British. We have one or two to be proud of ourselves.

Patry Francis said...

Mark: I like your comment about finding life hard to bear without that music. Makes me think about all the trials and hardship so much of it came from, and how it literally did get people through. A couple of names on your list were unfamiliar to me--but won't be for long.

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