Woody Guthrie was a true pioneer of modern folk music. It is truly remarkable to think that he was born all the way back in 1912, but this footage of him performing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ at the BBC in 1944 is a testament to what an incredibly forward-thinking musician the late Guthrie was.
Without Woody Guthrie helping to usher in a new era of folk music, one which would go on to inspire Bob Dylan who cites Guthrie as one of his idols. Along with Dylan, Guthrie has also been cited as a major influence on the likes of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Jerry Garcia and Rodriguez to name just a handful.
Guthrie was the epitome of the American Dream, he lived and wrote through the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and even the early flames of the Cold War. His own childhood was full of catastrophe, Woody’s father, Charlie Guthrie, had been a successful politician and real estate mogul but this suddenly disappeared after a succession of bad investments.
Woody’s older sister, Clara, died of severe burns as a child after lighting herself on fire during an argument with Woody’s mother, Nora, whose mental illness problems had spiralled and was later diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea which is a hereditary disease that would later attack Woody. Nora was later committed to a mental institution and was rumoured to have lit her husband on fire which he never recovered from.
Guthrie had suffered first hand about the lies that labour camps were offering to lure people into after his family’s fall from grace and, in response, he turned his tragedy into poetic beauty which reflected his bleak experiences that would end up becoming the norm for songwriting.
“There was always some spiritual centre amid Woody’s songs,” Bruce Springsteen said in 1996. “He always projected a sense of good times in the face of it all. He always got you thinking about the next guy, he took you out of yourself. I guess his idea was salvation isn’t individual. Maybe we don’t rise and fall on our own.”
The track that Guthrie chose to perform when he appeared live on the BBC in 1944 was a classic American folk anthem ‘Wabash Cannonball’ which has been passed through generations of artists and the track’s origin can be traced back all the way to 1882. Perhaps the most famous version of the song was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936 with the Acuff version selling over 10 million physical copies worldwide.
Listen to the audio of Guthrie’s version, below.