“Is this land made for you and me?”
– Woody Guthrie
Bound For Glory
This isn’t so much a song about Woody Guthrie, but about Woody Guthrie’s songs, and their misappropriation. In May 1963 Broadside #26 reported that eight covers of Woody’s ‘ This Land Is Your Land’ had recently been recorded by the likes of The Limelighters, Peter, Paul and Mary, The New Christy Minstrel Singers, Flatt and Scruggs and Harry Belafonte. In 1962 Dylan released his tribute to Woody, ‘Song For Woody’, a slight song about not very much (“I’m seein’ your world of people and things”), except to say that he following in his footsteps. In the early 1960s, Woody Guthrie was trendy.
To Phil Woody represented the meeting of folk music and politics, of songs sung for a purpose, songs intended to inspire change and document the world around him. This wasn’t the Woody that Phil saw being represented by all the singers paying tribute to him, as he told Mainstream magazine in August 1963 “One of the sad aspects of the growing fame of Guthrie and his songs is the lack of understanding by some and prostitution by others”. Bound For Glory then is Phil’s attempt to reclaim Woody for the Left.
In his article titled ‘The Need For Topical Music’ in Broadside #22 in March 1963 Phil sought to explain this misuse of the Woody legacy;
“I have run into some singers who say ‘sure, I agree with most topical songs, but they’re just too strong to do in public. Besides I don’t want to label myself or alienate some of my audience into thinking I’m unpatriotic’. Yet this same person will get on the stage and dedicate a song to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as if in tribute to an ideal they are afraid to reach for”.
It’s an article that says as much about Phil and his motives as it does about the possible motives of others. Following Woody’s death in 1967, a memorial concert was held in his honour, with proceeds going towards fighting the disease that killed him – Huntingdon’s Chorea. Phil wasn’t invited.
The organisers were promised a record deal and T.V. coverage if certain acts were invited to play.
In an interview with Gordon Friesen for Broadside in 1968, Phil explained his frustrations with the event which he attended but didn’t sing at;
“The Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert was my last straw. At the end of the Woody Guthrie concert they sang This Land Is Your Land and I walked out in the middle of it because it wasn’t my land. I felt, and I feel now, that I should have been in that concert. I felt, and I feel now, that Jack Elliot should have been in that concert. I like Richie Havens, I like Judy Collins and I like Odetta, as performers. I think they’re all very talented, but! I can’t quite see the logic. Whoever decided that they belonged in the Woody Guthrie show and I didn’t, and Jack Elliot didn’t, I’ll go to my grave wondering about that!
I consider that concert a disgrace. I went only because Dylan was there. Psychologically I had to look at Dylan. As I sat there watching the concert I was writhing in my seat…They were up there singing songs and I was saying ‘fuck you’…by the end of that concert I was almost in tears…
After seeing that concert, I don’t think Woody Guthrie would have been invited to the Woody Guthrie Memorial. Because he would have been out of place. There were all these performers, and all these managers lurking backstage…and everyone seemed to be taking advantage. I’m being very bitter now, now I have no choice. I’m a folk singer, I’ve sang at political rallies for years, Woody wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’, I wrote Power And The Glory, he wrote lots of songs about World War Two…I wrote I Ain’t Marching Anymore – for years I do this and here’s the concert and all of a sudden here’s Richie Havens…and I’m sitting in the audience – crying.”
It’s a revealing statement. Phil was learning that it was not simply good intentions that was key to singer’s career, not politics either, but success. Commercial success. In those terms Phil was an outsider, literally sat in the stands rather than on the stage. Along the way his ego was taking a battering.
Phil’s kinship with Woody extends further than singing Woody’s songs and singing about Woody. The themes that Woody’s songs concerned themselves with – war, poverty, unions for example – are also reflected in Phil’s songs. The most obvious comparison may be between Woody’s ‘Plane Wreck At Los Gatos’ and Phil’s Bracero, both concerned with the plight of Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. Both Phil and Woody also wrote songs about Joe Hill and there is the inference that the baton of left-wing song being passed from Joe Hill to Woody to Phil. At least that’s how Phil may have seen it.
The version of Bound For Glory that appears on Sammy Walker’s ‘Song For Patty’ album in 1975 continues this theme, featuring as it does Phil on backing vocals along with Sis Cunningham, who as one of the Almanac Singers performed with Woody. It is also a beautiful version, with Walker’s more urgent delivery adding something that Phil’s version lacks. It also retains the harmonica part, originally played by John Sebastian later of The Lovin’ Spoonful, the first use of an instrument other than a guitar on a Phil Ochs song.
Unfortunately, though Bound For Glory effectively pays tribute to Woody, Phil over eggs it with such indefensibly silly lyrics as “planted all the grass where there needed to be green”, and “fed all the hungry souls that needed to be fed”. As is Phil’s way, he can’t simply pay tribute to Woody, he has to make a wider point, as he does in the last verse, the verse which for which the song was probably written in the first place;
“Now sing out his praises on every sing shore,
But so few remember what he was fighting for,
Oh why sing the song but forget about the aim?,
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”