Bob Dylan once said, that “the highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anybody but inspire them?” Dylan himself has lived by that mantra and inspired millions over the years, but he, in turn, was inspired by those that came before him and seemingly none more so than Woody Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie is considered by many to be one of the most significant figured in the folk revival movement. Before the Greenwich Village revival of folk at the birth of the sixties, Guthrie was the troubadour who illuminated the way. He not only wrote his own folk songs but sporting a guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists” scrawled across it could certainly be considered one of the precursors of the iconoclastic brand of folk that followed in his footsteps.
He was Dylan’s hero. Dylan would frequently visit him while he was in the hospital and in the poem penned in his honour Dylan wrote: “You can either go to the church of your choice / or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital / You’ll find God in the church of your choice / You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State. Hospital.” With that sort of eulogy in mind, it is no surprise that Guthrie had a hand in Dylan’s venture into writing songs of his own.
At the time when Dylan first arrived in New York, ‘The Village’ was flooded with the first drabs of folk players who had poured off the pages of beat literature into gingham-clad shirts and as a rule of thumb, they all performed shop-worn folk classics from time immemorial. Likewise, the radio waves were chocked with singers taking on the works of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. This prompted Dylan to comment, “I always kind of wrote my own songs but I never really would play them. Nobody played their own songs, the only person I knew who really did it was Woodie Guthrie.”
This individualism caught Dylan’s attention, thus he decided to try his hand in homage. “Then one day,” he continues, “I just wrote a song, and it was the first song I ever wrote, and it was ‘A Song for Woodie Guthrie’. And I just felt like playing it one night and I played it. I just wanted a song to sing and there came a certain point where I couldn’t sing anything, I had to write what I wanted to sing because what I wanted to sing nobody else was writing, I couldn’t find that song someplace. If I could’ve I probably wouldn’t have ever started writing.”
In the end, Dylan’s humble ways could fool you into thinking that it was simply a case of necessity being the mother of invention. However, ‘Woody Guthrie’ was clearly not as flippant as not being able to find a track to fit the bill before turning up at one of the Greenwich Village’s dive bars. Case in point is that not only did ‘A Song for Woody Guthrie’ become one of only two none-covers on his debut, but he also erupted in an explosion of original songwriting thereafter, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
You can hear his comments in full and listen to the track below.