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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

Woody Guthrie’s Hard-Hitting Songbook

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Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People is a book with many authors. At its heart are a couple hundred songs, many of them anonymous and collected by John and Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress on field trips through the South (and elsewhere). The common theme was social justice—especially for migrant workers, sharecroppers, union laborers, the homeless and anyone else impacted by the Great Depression. The Lomaxes handed the pile of songs to Woody Guthrie, who began typing out an intro for this book and for each song in his Okie homespun style (“There’s a heap of people in the country that’s a having the hardest time…”). He brought in his young pal Pete Seeger to help edit and transcribe and somehow John Steinbeck wandered through and left behind an introduction.

Next thing you know, all this work was forgotten when America went to World War II; Guthrie turned attention to writing his Bound for Glory autobiography and everyone was busy with something else. The manuscript was finally pieced together and published in 1967, around the time of Guthrie’s death. Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press recently brought out a paperback edition with a new intro by Nora Guthrie, the great folksinger’s daughter, which opens a window onto the New York of the 1940s where her father was working on Hard Hitting Songs. It was a time of hootenanny rent parties, when the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, not Ayn Rand, filled the air. Many of the lyrics were written by picketers and union activists. Set to familiar, hummable tunes, they speak directly to such problems at hand as paying for food and working in a safe environment—concerns that haven’t gone away 70 years later.