May-June 2007

Woody Guthrie's
Advice to Bob Dylan

By Ross Altman

The greatest American songwriter of the 1960s met the greatest American songwriter of the 1930s when he was a tousle-haired 20 year-old kid from Hibbing, Minnesota who still, in Joan Baez's words, had his baby fat. Woody Guthrie, in Dylan's as yet unwritten immortal words, was busy dying (of Huntington's Chorea), while Dylan was busy being born. Dylan came for inspiration and Guthrie, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, offered him the best advice he could.

To have been a fly on the wall in Woody's room in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, with Dylan playing Woody's songs back to him "like a Woody Guthrie jukebox," as Dylan would later describe himself at that age, would have been like seeing Socrates talk to a young Plato, like Dr. Samuel Johnson meeting Boswell for the first time, like Wordsworth meeting Keats, or Emerson meeting Thoreau-a moment to remember.

Did Woody tell Bob how important it was to come up with a good hook for a song-both melodic and lyrical? Did he pass on the wisdom he had adapted from the French Impressionists: All you can write is what you see? Did he tell him to throw out his first draft?

None of the above. Did he tell him not to mix his metaphors, as E.B. White and William Strunk would tell young writers in their classic book on style? Did he tell him not to search for answers, but to revel in the questions themselves, as Rilke would tell a young poet in his Letters to a Young Poet? Did he say anything about point of view? No, no, no.

Did he offer him Chekov's advice that if you see a rifle on the wall in the first act of a play, it better go off by the third act? Or that the way to write a good story is to write two hundred bad ones? No again.

Nor did he pass on to Bob the advice he had given a young Pete Seeger when they were both members of the Almanac Singers: Don't be afraid to be serious, or its corollary truth-sometimes you can use humor to make a serious point, as he did in his Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd, "Some men will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen."

In short, you could compile a useful manual for songwriters with advice Woody Guthrie did not give Bob Dylan. So what of the advice he did give him?

Don't rush me. I'm just getting warmed up.

Before I reveal Guthrie's secrets, you should also know that Dylan did not arrive empty-handed, or just to reflect the master's words and music back to him. Dylan had started writing songs himself, and brought his first "keeper," a paean to his idol, Song to Woody, which would be one of only two original songs on his first, eponymous, album, released the following year.

Listening to that first published Dylan song today, written when he was just twenty years old, one is struck by how world-weary the young troubadour already sounds-he could almost be describing himself-or at least the persona he is at great pains to project - as he evokes a world that seems sick and it's hungry, tired and torn / it looks like it's a-dyin' and it's hardly been born.

That play on words would come back to Dylan three years later in his impressionistic masterpiece and rhyming tour-de-farce It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding): He not busy being born is busy dying.

You may recall the late great reporter Ed Bradley's 60 Minutes interview with Dylan two years ago, in which Bradley expressed surprise and dismay that Dylan had announced in his autobiography Chronicles, Vol. 1 that he could no longer write songs. Bradley was not afraid to ask the uncomfortable and intrusive follow-up question, "How come?"

Dylan's answer was utterly self-effacing and brutally self-revealing at the same time - he simply recited the opening of this song: Darkness at the break of noon/shadows even the silver spoon/the handmade blade, the child's balloon/eclipses both the sun and moon/to understand you know too soon/there's no sense in trying. Then he paused for dramatic effect and looked at Bradley man to man, as he said, "You try to write something like that - it was pure magic - I don't know how I did it even once, and I can't do it anymore. If I could, I would."

Then he added that he was able to do other things to compensate for the loss of his lyrical ability - like write prose. For an artist who could be notoriously off-putting and even insulting to inquisitive journalists, he paid Bradley the high compliment of complete honesty. That's what made Bradley the great journalist he was-he elicited that kind of honesty again and again.

What is crucial to recognize for our purposes, however, is that even in his first published song, one that evokes throughout the imagery of the Dustbowl Balladeer, Dylan has already found his own poetic voice as well. Surrounded by lines Dylan patched together from Guthrie classics: Here's to the hands, and the hearts of the men, that come with the dust and are gone with the wind (Pastures of Plenty); And the very last thing that I want to do/Is to say I been hittin' some hard travelin' too (Hard Travelin'), they show off in bold relief the line that is pure Dylan: It looks like it's a-dyin' and it's hardly been born. Even as he pays tribute to the master, he has already started to carve out his own road.

There is more to Song to Woody than meets the eye, however, for listening to the music one realizes that the title is only half right; the song is as much a song from Woody. The tune is one Woody adapted from traditional sources (Hear The Nightingales Sing is the most obvious) and used for his Christmas protest classic 1913 Massacre, a song that records in excruciating detail a historic crime against the copper miners of Calumet, Michigan:

Take a trip with me in nineteen thirteen
To Calumet, Michigan in the copper country
I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

In this searing indictment of the brutality of industrial capitalism Guthrie recounts an episode in which hundreds of miners are trapped in their social hall when a practical joker yells fire in a crowded theatre, and starts a panic reaction in which 73 miners' children are killed in the narrow stairwell leading down to the single exit. Guthrie's last telling verse is pure folk poetry:

The piano played a slow funeral tune
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon
The parents, they cried and the miners they moaned,
"See what your greed for money has done."

One of Guthrie's iron-clad classics, it provides just a glimpse into the range of experience and outrage at injustice that the young Dylan will himself be articulating in just a couple of years with songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Masters of War. For now, however, Dylan's Song to Woody only hints at the full-blown mature power of Guthrie's great ballad that provides the tune: The 1913 Massacre.

Thirty years later, at the Madison Square Garden concert celebrating his recording career on Columbia Records, with the greatest rock singers in the country now paying tribute to him, Bob went back to those two cornerstone songs at the beginning for his own brief set: Song to Woody and It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).

In my end is my beginning, said another great American poet, T.S. Eliot in the poem East Coker from The Four Quartets. The obverse is also true; before Dylan discovered Woody he was playing electric guitar and piano and trying to create a band to become a rock and roll star. It was hearing Woody for the first time and reading his autobiography Bound for Glory that literally changed his life and made him pick up an acoustic guitar. Ever since he had run away from his Mid-western mining town home in Hibbing, Minnesota he had been trying to figure out how to say something in music. Hearing Woody Guthrie showed him how to begin to bring his "thought dreams" to life. Woody showed him he didn't need a band - that one man with a guitar (and a harmonica) could sing the truth.

That's what brought Dylan to Greystone Hospital in the spring of 1961-a twenty-year old troubadour to meet the man for whom he had just written his first real song. The man for whom Hard Travelin' was not a lament, not the blues, but a celebration, a way of life - something to aspire to. Just one year later he would raise that catchword from the Great Depression-the theme of dozens of songs about hard times, like Times a Getting' Hard, and Hard Times in the Cryderville Jail, and Woody's own Hard Travelin', to the height of great poetry, with A Hard Rain's a' Gonna Fall. From Hard Travelin' to Hard Rain, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, who said at the end of his modern folk ballad based on Lord Randall, I'll know my song well before I start singing.

Dylan didn't need Guthrie's advice, and Guthrie didn't need to tell him anything - he had already shown him how it was done. Nonetheless, he did give the pilgrim some advice. What was it? Oh yes, I almost forgot: "Kid, don't worry about writing songs; work on your singing."


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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