Union Songs

Woody Guthrie in Katoomba

article by Mark Gregory

I first heard Woody Guthrie songs around a campfire in Springwood in the early 1960s and I've sung them ever since.

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
This dusty old dust is a getting my home
And I've got to be drifting along

The seemingly effortless lyrics along with the familiar tunes you'd never heard before, songs of hope in desperate times, songs about a different future, songs that championed the "common people", songs about projects that harnessed the skills of the unemployed, songs with choruses that would get you to sing enough to make your voice ache

Roll on Columbia roll on
Roll on Columbia roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on Columbia roll on

It was American music that spoke of an America we didn't often see in the newspapers and films, very different from the glitter and hype the PR and political cant. Woody Guthrie encouraged us to celebrate the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary people, using the idioms of the people themselves, exploring the history ignored by the history books. Always with the view that it was our world we were living in and not the property of the wealthy and powerful.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1000 songs over a 20 year period before the onset of Huntington's chorea hospitalised him and cut his life short. He wrote songs of every kind. Songs for children, songs for union campaigns, songs for political battles, love songs and murder ballads. Songs that contained gems of observation and wisdom wrapped up in verse

As through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
Some with a fountain pen

One of the last songs he wrote was a song about the treatment of Mexican migrant workers to the US.

Goodbye to my Juan goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

Like many Guthrie songs it rings as true today as it when he wrote it did more than half a century ago. A song that transcends both time and place.

Woody Guthrie sang with many great singers including Leadbelly, Cisco Huston, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Burl Ives, Paul Robeson. His influence on song writers is still very strong spanning generations and continents. Singer/songwriters as diverse as Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen and Christie Moore all happily acknowledge their debt to Woody.

On Friday September 20 at 7.00pm there was a Woody Guthrie Tribute night at the Gearins Hotel, Katoomba. A bunch of Blue Mountains singers sang through the night as did everyone in the audience.

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