Anna Canoni about Woody Guthrie

by Carl Wiser

Anna is Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, and a director at the Woody Guthrie Foundation. You probably know that Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and that everyone from Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco sings his praises. His son Arlo Guthrie is famous for his songs "City Of New Orleans" and "Alice's Restaurant." But what made Woody so special? Was he a communist? And how did he make a living as a Folk singer in the '40s? Part of the mystery has been resolved with the release of The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance, which is a recording of Guthrie performing in 1949. It was from a wire recording, which Anna explains.
Anna Canoni: They used wire to record things for a very short time in the late '40s, early '50s. It looks like fishing line, and the music or audio is held onto the wire by magnet. So this is real scientific nerdy stuff. It's great. We had a huge team of people working together. There's one machine in the country that can pull audio off of a wire recording, so we had to get that one machine. There was like one guy who figured out how to restore this based on an algorithm. It's just been an amazing process. So the restoration of this concert was just an awesome task. And what you end up with is the full concert minus maybe two minutes that we lost in just the restoration. It was a concert from 1949 done at the YMCA in Newark, New Jersey. There were 25 people in the audience. My grandmother was the host, the emcee of the evening, and she asked Woody questions, like "Woody, tell us a little bit about Oklahoma," and he would talk, and then he'd go into a song. And it's just a beautiful 75-minute concert. We started doing CD liner notes and it just kept going and all of a sudden it was like pages and pages and pages, in the end we had a 72-page book with the concert CD inside. Jorge Arevalo Mateus, the Curator of The Woody Guthrie Archives, wrote the text. We use the CD as a fundraiser for The Woody Guthrie Foundation, and now people can hear Woody Guthrie in concert for the first time.

Carl Wiser (SF): What are some of Woody's most powerful songs?

Anna: I would say "This Land Is Your Land." It's the most famous, but there's a reason why it's the most famous. I think that often people will just look at the words on the surface and not really look into what he's talking about. But when Woody wrote, he wrote in double entendres, and sometimes triple. And there's enough to keep you thinking. I think his music was really to keep you thinking and start up a conversation. It wasn't just something nice to listen to, it's something that needs to be said to begin a discussion. And I would define that as great songwriting. So "This Land Is Your Land" would fit into that. "Pastures of Plenty" would fit into that, as well. I think there's a lot of great songs, but I think these additional lyrics that are coming out of the archives now are really shocking. Because to learn that he wrote about Ingrid Bergman. He had a huge crush on her, and he wrote just this wonderful song about her. It's a very erotic song. Just the fact that he wrote an erotic song about Ingrid Bergman is so funny to me.

Songfacts: Does the song have a name?

Anna: Yeah, it's called "Ingrid Bergman." And Billy Bragg put music to it, so it's on the Mermaid Avenue album. There's also a beautiful song called "Sandal String," which the music was put to it by a gentleman named Joel Rafael. And it's this beautiful song about God. Woody was sick for the last 15 years of his life, and I think within that time period the songs that he could write down became very powerful. Real end-of-life songs. And so I think that was one of the songs that came out of that time period. That's another very powerful song. "To undo your sandal, sandal, to undo your sandal string. Christ you know that I’m not worthy to undo your sandal string". I think that many of Woody's songs are powerful, but in terms of what people would know, "Pastures of Plenty" and "This Land Is Your Land" I would consider in his top 5 greatest songs.

Songfacts: What is "Pastures of Plenty" about?

Anna: It was written about the Columbia River. It was during that 30-days on the Columbia River. And it's about migrants - it's all about the country. It's a very big song. It's very general in certain respects, and very specific in other respects. But it's all about traveling across the country, and it's about working the land and owning the land based on your work and your labor, not on money and paper. And it's a feeling, a sense of the wonderful feeling that you work this land and that you take pride in it, and therefore you will fight for it. It's not about, I own this property so I want to keep it. It's much deeper than that. It's a beautiful song.

Songfacts: He also wrote songs that were based on characters. And "Pretty Boy Floyd" is one that comes to mind.

Anna: Yeah, "Pretty Boy Floyd" is one of Woody's more popular ballads. The outlaw who helped the poor, a Robin Hood story. In terms of Woody's storytelling ability, another song that comes to mind is "1913 Massacre," It is one of the most moving songs that I have ever heard. This is also one that Woody recorded, it's very powerful hearing him sing it. It is a song about miners having their holiday party, when the bossmen hanging around outside yell into the party room that there is a fire and then locked the door. In an attempt to escape, everyone raced towards the door and because it was locked, 73 children died in the stampede. And it was this practical joke, this mocking moment, that struck a chord with him. So that is what Woody would do, he would take newspapers read through the articles and write songs about stories that touched him. Being able to write powerful stories about an event I think that that's such an amazing gift that Woody could bring to songwriting.

Songfacts: You said Pretty Boy Floyd was a real person.

Anna: Yeah, I think so. Based on the song, it makes me think so. It makes me think that there was a news article about a guy named Pretty Boy Floyd. There were all these outlaws, Billy The Kid, and all of those guys during this time. So, I'm thinking that Pretty Boy Floyd was a real person.

Songfacts: It's something you definitely see as you kind of go through the Dylan, the Springsteen. You can completely see where they got this from.

Anna: Right.

Songfacts: What are some of the cover songs, recordings of Woody Guthrie songs, that you think are very powerful?

Anna: U2 doing "Jesus Christ." That is killer. Bruce Springsteen doing "Riding In My Car." "Riding In My Car" was a children's song that Woody wrote, and he makes all the sounds of a door closing and the engine. To hear Bruce Springsteen make all these funny sounds is hysterical. Ani DiFranco's version of "Do Re Mi" personally I just love. I guess those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head quickly.

Songfacts: Can you tell me a little about "Do Re Mi"?

Anna: Sure. It's all about the migrants being illegally kept out of California in the Dust Bowl time in the '30s. So if you ain't got the do-re-mi, then you'd better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee. Because you won't be able to get into the Garden of Eden: California. So it's all about that time period, and the illegal border.

Songfacts: Is Woody Guthrie more famous now than when he was alive?

Anna: I'd say so. I'd say that the idea of him is getting bigger and bigger. Woody reached a certain height of popularity in the '60s, and then there was a decline in awareness, but in the folk music world he was certainly still big. But there were certain musicians, like Peter Seeger, who continued to share Woody's music. And The Weavers, and Dylan, it's thanks to them that Woody stayed in the folk mainstream for I'd say another 20 years. Everyone had kind of this sepia-toned image of who Woody Guthrie was, with just a guitar thrown on his back, and rambling across the country. And I think that now there's a much bigger idea of who he is.

Songfacts: I'm trying to reconcile the image of Woody Guthrie with the reality of Woody Guthrie.

Anna: I think that happens with a lot of people who in a certain way seem intangible, right? There's people who you can see, who you've met, who you have a certain idea of who they are, and there's people who you never see, who you never saw because they've already passed, and you go, "Who are they now? What does that mean?" Well, Woody wrote over 2,500 songs, and only recorded about 300 of them. And he didn't know how to write music notation. So the remaining lyrics became simply lyrics, and had no music to them. And there were a lot of people in the folk music industry who said, "Well, Woody had put music to them at a certain point, and just because we've lost them, maybe just leave them as is." And my mom (Nora Guthrie) came along and said, "I think these lyrics need to get back out there." So she's been working with musicians to put new music to Woody's lyrics, and because of that you see that we only knew, like, 8% of his creative output. And now, because of the work that Nora's done, there are another 100 songs out there and she continues to work on somewhere between 5 and 20 songs a year. So when you get to know more of his creative output, then you get a better idea of who he was. He didn't just write about the Dust Bowl. He wrote about flying saucers. He wrote about atoms. He wrote about baseball. He wrote about Ingrid Bergman. He wrote about all these different things. It gives you a better picture of who he was, whereas before we had this idea of who Woody Guthrie was, and to be honest it wasn't very accurate. But now I think each year it's getting more accurate.

Songfacts: You can certainly trace his life through his songs. Can you make a distinction between the songs that he would write either on commission or for some specific purpose, and songs that were very personal that really did tell the story of his life?

Anna: Woody was hired for one month to by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs promoting the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. He certainly wasn't usually paid for songs. The ladies' auxiliary said, "You write songs about unions, can you write a song for us?" So he wrote this very silly song that says, "The ladies' auxiliary is the best auxiliary," and that's like the extent of it. And that was him writing a song for the ladies' auxiliary. But going back to the Columbia River songs, I think some of his most powerful work came from this time period, from those 30 days that he spent on the Columbia River. "Pastures of Plenty" is one of those songs that I think is one of his five most powerful songs that he wrote. Within that one time period, he was really just surviving a lot. The Depression, sometimes you just needed to make some money to live on.

Songfacts: So considering he was very sparsely recorded, where were most of his songs heard?

Anna: He didn't "tour" he "rambled." He rambled with fellow musicians, like Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Leadbelly and others. They would just go where a song was needed. Sometimes if there were people standing in picket lines, union rallies, they said, "Okay, let's go sing some songs for them and keep them going." And that's mostly how he was heard.

Songfacts: You always think of the folk music community being a Greenwich Village kind of New York thing. But when you have all this space, and you're traveling between Oklahoma and California, I'm wondering how the logistics worked for that. How you made any kind of living being a folk singer back in the '40s.

Anna: Well, in the '40s the group of musicians, the Almanac Singers, they had what they called the Almanac House, and Woody lived with them for a while, and they basically had communal living, so everyone brings in money from whatever odd-end jobs they get, whether it's writing music or performing or whatever. And they split the bills, and they split the work. And Woody was never good at that. All the times that he was supposed to do the dishes they never got done. He would sit up and just write, he just had to keep writing. He would write many songs a day, for years.

But they all did communal living, and he would bum around. He lived on friend's couches. If you ever speak to Leadbelly's niece, Tiny Robinson, she says she remembers Woody sleeping on their couch for as long as she can remember. Her mother would try to scrub Woody in the bath and say, "Get in the bath. You're filthy, and you need to go take a bath." When he was asked to leave, he'd stay with someone else. He just stayed with everyone. Just kind of moved around.

In the '30s and '40s, most professional songwriters worked out of offices in New York City writing popular songs for movies and musicals. You didn't get rich as a Folk singer, but as Anna points out, Guthrie wasn't in it for the money.
Songfacts: Did he write songs for other musicians to perform?

Anna: Not that I know of.

Songfacts: So he didn't go the route of Tin Pan Alley, "I'm gonna write some songs, make some money." Everything he wrote was for his own purpose?

Anna: Yeah, exactly.

Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that he was comfortable sleeping on couches.

Anna: Oh, yeah. He was an Okie. He was part of the largest migration in the U.S. I think he was uncomfortable in certain nice arrangements. He was just that kind of person.

Songfacts: So Woody Guthrie's songs in some ways are the ultimate Americana, and just a living history of our land. Yet, there's kind of a subversive element to a lot of this. Can you speak about Woody's attitudes towards America, and about his affiliation with communism?

Anna: I think that Woody felt that this was an amazing place to be. He really felt proud of this land. But it wasn't about what the government was necessarily doing. It wasn't about any of that. It was about the idea of saying, This is my home. And I am going to take pride and I'm going to work it. And I'm going to earn the right to say that this is my land. And therefore, I'm going to love it, and I'm going to see the dirty side of it and the beautiful side of it, and love all of it for what it is. He was very pure, I think, in terms of the idea of what the United States meant to him. It wasn't this nationalistic blind pride. There was never any blind love, I think, for him. Everything had a very deep sense of purpose and reason, and so for him the United States – which is why I think that the Columbia River song cycle is so beautiful, because it's so passionate. He's very genuine. He truly loved the idea of making this dam, so that the river could work towards bringing electricity and heat to people who lived in the area. And in terms of communism, I think that the definition of communism changes over time. Woody was against fascism, domestic and abroad. He just felt that when you live and work the land, and you travel and you see these people, these migrants, being kept out of California during the '30s by illegal police barricades, and you live in a migrant camp, and you're with these people who are starving, who just want to earn a proper living - they don't want to get anything for free. They don't want our hand-me-downs, they want to work. And they want to earn their keep. And I think that was the kind of world he wanted for people who just genuinely wanted to be able to earn a good and just living. He was never a card-carrying communist, but just the idea of all working together for a greater cause, for the world, for the earth, for the people. Like he said, "I ain't never been a communist, but I've been in the red all my life."

Songfacts: Well, he did live in a commune, so…

Anna: (laughs)

Songfacts: I guess it figures he would have some of those values.

Anna: Yeah.

Songfacts: That's one of those superficial label things, "Oh, Woody Guthrie was a communist. He must have been bad."

Anna: Yeah, exactly. I think that first of all, you have to look at what the definition is. Second of all, you have to realize that it's such a silly label, and again it becomes this idea of narrowing the image of Woody. It becomes, you know, sepia-toned, guitar slung over his back, traveling across the country, communist. And those are just like four things. And as opposed to looking at this man for his whole life, which was only 55 years. But his whole life in which he did so much, and said so much.

Songfacts: What's one of those things that we might not know about Woody Guthrie?

Anna: I would consider Woody one of the earlier feminists.

Songfacts: Okay.

Anna: He wrote hundreds of songs and prose about women. About the beauty in what they bring to the world. All of Woody's stuff was in boxes for 20+ years. After my grandmother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, passed away in 1983, Harold Leventhal who was Woody's manager kept Woody's things in his New York City office. One day Harold called my mom and said, "You should come over and look at these boxes of your dad's stuff." And she kind of assumed that it was all about the Dust Bowl and '40s folk. She opened up one of his notebooks, and the first thing she saw was, "I Say To You, Woman And Man," and it's this beautiful 4-5 page prose about the rights of women in their relationships. And that if your husband is holding you back and not letting you be who you are, then go out and be with new lovers. Woody came to live in New York in 1940 and was influenced by people like Aunt Molly Jackson and Martha Graham. They really burst open this bubble of what a woman was, and what a woman could be, and I think that that's one of the most interesting pieces of his creative legacy that is coming to light now.

There's so much that we don't know. There are around 15,000 items that we have in The Woody Guthrie Archives. A book or a song is considered an "item," so some books have 100 pages written on double-sided pages. And if each of those is a song lyric, now you're talking about 35-50,000 things that very few people have ever seen.

Songfacts: Were any of those songs ever recorded that you would consider the feminist songs?

Anna: Yes, lots of them. Nora produced a concert in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was called "Hard Travelin', The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," and Bruce Springsteen, David Pirner, The Indigo Girls, and Ani DiFranco were some of musicians who participated in the concert. Tim Robbins was the emcee of the night. And he performed this spoken-word "I Say To You, Woman And Man" prose. What a wonderful piece it was!

Songfacts: So it's clear that the guy could just bang out lyrics like nobody's business. Where did he get the music from?

Anna: He wrote music and he could play a ton of different instruments, but his strength was certainly his lyric writing. He would often borrow tunes. As Woody put it, "Well, if they already know the tune, they're halfway to knowing the song."

Songfacts: So was his music kind of based on songs that he heard?

Anna: Yeah, well the Carter Family was certainly a big influence on him. He always loved the idea of having a family band. His mother was his other main music influence, she used to sing these old Scotch-Irish ballads. And you could even see on the lyrics that he even wrote – he wrote "To the tune of..." and he would reference either another song he'd written or one by someone else.

Songfacts: These are all traditional songs, right? So he had every right to do it.

Anna: Yeah, I don't know what publishing rights and copyrights were in the '30s and '40s. I know they're much different now.

Songfacts: I always thought that about Johnny Cash. Whenever I hear a Johnny Cash song I'm thinking it's the same song, it's just different lyrics. There's nothing wrong with that.

Anna: No, I think it's great. Because then if you know the tune, the least you can do is hum along.

Songfacts: So his words are all copyrighted, so if you try to record a Woody Guthrie song you have to pay royalties for it, correct?

Anna: Yeah, you have get permission for it.

Songfacts: You mentioned he wrote "Sandal Strings," which was about his relationship with God. And he also had a song called "Jesus Christ." Could you talk about that song and about his relationship with God – his religion?

Anna: I would say that Woody's religion was All. He incorporated pieces of everything. All you're really supposed to do here is participate, be active, have a voice, and then leave it behind for next generations to continue. There's this gorgeous song that was recorded by Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue CD titled "Another Man's Done Gone" where he says, "I may go down or up or anywhere, but I feel like this scribbling will stay. So when you think of me, if and when you do, just say, well, another man's done gone."

And he throughout his life studied many religions. As a songwriter he would study ideas and write what they call a song cycle about one particular topic. He would jump into this pool of Judaism, for example, and swim all around in it, get his fingertips to his toes soaked in the education of it. And then he would come out and write a song series on this idea. So he wrote tons of songs about Hanukkah, but he wasn't technically Jewish, and when we put out an album called Happy Joyous Hanukkah, everyone said, "I didn't know Woody was Jewish." And Nora said, "He's not. I guess I need to explain." So it was just one song cycle. And he looked at religions that way: as an artist, as something to delve into and then swim around in, output all of this. Then, at the end of his life, there's this one lyric that just says, "Oh God," over and over and over again. And I don't think that God had a definition. There's a beautiful piece of paper where Woody painted "God is love."

Songfacts: Are there any other songs that Woody wrote that may not be the most popular songs, that you think are some that have really interesting stories behind them?

Anna: There's one in particular called "Gonna Get Through This World," and it was written by Lisa Gutkin of The Klezmatics and sung by Susan McKeown and The Klezmatics on the CD Wonder Wheel. Is it, I think, a mantra – it should be a mantra for everyone's life. The basic idea is, "I'm gonna walk in this world, I'm gonna talk in this world, I'm gonna clean up this world, and then I'm gonna leave this world behind." The idea of making an impact and then letting it go and leaving it behind. And it's not about physically who you were. It's about what you did. "Gonna Get Through This World" is a gorgeous song.

Songfacts: I've taken more of your time than I said I would, but this was very interesting.

Anna: Oh, no worries. To be honest, I find it very hard to talk about Woody. It's like having an encyclopedia from A-Z and picking out five great moments. I think it's like having "This Land Is Your Land" be the song that everyone knows about Woody Guthrie, and I want to say there's so much more. That's like when you walk into the foyer of a house and say, "That's a beautiful front door." And thinking that you know the whole house. It's the same thing with Woody.

March 1, 2008.
Learn more about Guthrie at

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Comments: 4

  • Brit Mccabe from Oklahoma City, OkHi Anna, I don't know if this is the right place to say this or not. I guess if I'm out of line, someone will delete it. You won't remember me but I actually quasi-babysat you for 2 weeks in 1980 while your mom taught modern dance at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute. I had originally gone down there as a counselor for theatre but was pulled into being the "nurse" because I was also a paramedic. Anyway, I talked to your mom a couple of years ago at the Blue Door here in OKC when she was here with the book. We got to visit a while and kind of caught me up on things. Anyway, I just wanted to say hello and meeting you and your mom and also Mary Jo has meant so much to me. I love what you are doing.
  • Rjb from CaliforniaPerhaps Woody Guthrie was one of the first *male* feminists. But feminism is a lot older than him.
  • Reggie Ruth Barrett from ColoradoThank you for posting this wonderful interview. I never get tired of learning about Woody. What a passionately brave writer he was. Let this be an inspiration for all. Woody had passionate guts.
  • Lee Vegas from Las VegasAlthough Arlo made it famous, "City of New Orleans" was written by Steve Goodman.
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