Going into this book, I was feeling extremely prejudiced against standard-issue American singer-songwriter guitar music. Especially traditional stuff. We’re inundated in Seattle. And Woody Guthrie: I get it. He was a socialist protest singer. He was down with the Popular Front in the 1940s. He called his guitar a machine. He meant for it to kill fascists. We would vote Woody Guthrie onto our city council if we could. The songs he wrote still currently catch hella burn at coffeeshops citywide, and on KEXP he’s always there, thanks to the Wilco/Billy Bragg “Mermaid Avenue” record from 18 years ago. That album is like dungarees Seattle won’t stop wearing. You can say you don’t love the sound of Guthrie’s folksy, bluesy, vernacular poetry music. People will ask, Are you sure you get it??
How about another question: Do you remember the American rock v. disco wars of 1979? That is the background for Seattle's music culture now. Let me sum up: white people (rockists) hated black people (disco fans). Records were publicly bonfired and it was freely declared in the streets that while rock music was “about” something, disco, on the other hand, was vapid and contagious and needed to die. Cloaked as a disagreement over musical preference, it was really a xenophobic race war. And it’s not obvious in Seattle, but in the grand scheme the rockists lost. I just deejayed prom for a local high school and the senior class sent me 200 requests, with three rock songs on the list. The rest were rap and electronic dance music, styles which descended from disco.
The Seattle music establishment is run by the parents of those kids. Having written about music for ten years in Seattle, trust me when I say those parents are all rockists. When the kids fully take over it will be another story in the Seattle music power structure. Right now progress is being slowly made; there is an early-Milliennial age group eking its way into leadership roles. But currently rockism still rules Seattle. Maybe you don’t notice if you’re white, but the whole system favors white male guitar music: festivals, clubs, recording studios, radio, media. The bias shapes our consciousness. Our pop music history is taught as a string of white male guitar acts. We have to unlearn this.
But we don’t try hard enough. Seattle holds itself back stylewise and philosophically, clutching onto the singer-songwriter idiom. Meanwhile nationally, Beyoncé is killing rockism perhaps once and for all, as the critic Ann Powers said on Facebook the other day. Seattle isn’t having it. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” tour date at Century Link didn’t even sell out (as of this writing, a few days before the concert) and there’s a lowkey arrogance behind that. The Seattle freeze. At times it feels like strategic overlooking.
Further disclosure: music writing may be at peak boringness in 2016. Most of what I read is “Click on my hot take about something I barely understand!” The best music writing introduces something new: new music, new ideas, new style. Right now there is a pervading sameness. When you create content super quickly, which publishing on the Internet seems to beg, you’ll have more of a tendency to come to the same conclusions as everyone else. That’s what’s happening right now, everyone noticing the most obvious aspects of any given musical presentation and publishing ASAP. It’s been exhausting to read about Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” and then “Lemonade.” Too many thinkpieces with the same thinking. I would rather just get basic songwriting credits and an audio link.
Today I feel like the best medium for commentary about music is deejaying. Enthusiasm balanced with care and creativity, then let the music speak for itself. That’s why I put Greg Vandy in an elite class. His “American Roadhouse” program on KEXP is everything non-mixshow deejaying on the radio can be: deeply dug and never boring. It’s all about so-called traditional American and blues-related music, which could be a fish-in-a-barrel scenario for Seattle. But Vandy rises above his station with good taste and arcs drawn back to black musicians, to the church. He does a way better job than he needs to. And so I figured as played-out as a Woody Guthrie book sounded, his book would probably be worth reading.
After reading 26 Songs in 30 Days by Vandy and Daniel Person (news editor at Seattle Weekly) my faith in music writing has been momentarily reinstilled. And for whatever reason I’m considering buying new strings for my classical guitar. If you pick it up, prepare to learn about Pacific Northwest history, American folk music and Guthrie’s songs about the Columbia River. It’s also about the nuances of branded media content, where art is advertising but also still art.
The story centers on 1941, the year when Woody Guthrie embarked on a legendary songwriting spree to match the prolificness of early Beatles and contemporary Lil B: 26 Songs in 30 Days. Lyrics were all related to the powerful hydroelectric capability of the Columbia River, which was about to be tapped by the Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA needed to get people excited about the project. This was not Guthrie’s own idea for subject matter but the BPA’s, who paid Guthrie for the music. The BPA’s mission of spreading hydroelectric power meshed with Guthrie’s democratic socialist philosophies. But Guthrie might have gotten involved if it didn’t: he previously wrote jingles for a cigarette company. Either way, everyone should have electricity, Guthrie reasoned.
It may seem contradictory for those who identify Guthrie as a protest singer that he was also a propaganda singer. Isn’t he supposed to check the government? Now he’s working for the government? But going forward, let us consider: are those exclusive? Vandy and Person tease this issue out and let the reader draw a conclusion. Woody Guthrie sang of farmers but never farmed. He took gigs for money but let his family starve. He didn’t necessarily do what he sang or what he said he’d do, and he didn’t need to. He was authentic and inauthentic. It’s a very anti-rockist thing to paint a folk hero that way. I love Vandy and Person for that.
They follow their story into uncomfortable areas, such as Guthrie singing warmly about killing Indians. There are lyrics in "Roll On, Columbia" we don't sing anymore, stanzas in support of the Indian Wars. In the end, Guthrie writes in verse, Indians were laid down to peacefully rest. To me, rooting for this glib defence of genocide makes listening to Guthrie similar to listening to R. Kelly or watching the movies of Woody Allen. It's all about where you personally draw the line. I was disheartened to learn Guthrie had acute foreknowledge that the whole Grand Coulee endeavor would mess up salmon runs forever, a major factor in regional ecology, not to mention Indian culture. Guthrie was, as we say in 2016, problematic.
The Columbia River songs were never released as planned, intended to soundtrack the BPA’s propaganda film which was waylaid by WWII, diverting U.S. government funds away from the BPA’s art project/advertisement. The songs would eventually trickle into the universe through movies, albums and cover versions. “Grand Coulee Dam” was a hit in the UK. Guthrie's Columbia River material was sung in schools in the Pacific Northwest. We still sing "Roll On, Columbia" at Sounders games. This music sounds like you think. Repeated choruses, verses about working hard, etc. It’s all on YouTube. Listen to it and see if you like it.
In the years following the Columbia River songs, Guthrie would descend into mental illness with Huntington’s Disease, and the critical cult which has since developed around him (just like with Bob Dylan, his musical heir) would never let anything rest. It’s hard to say the planet needed more words spilled about him. At the heart of this book is a provincial impulse — celebrating local because it’s local. Vandy and Person are locals and acknowledge the motivation, writing that when you hear music about the place where you live, "a sort of quiet pride come up through your blood," in Guthrie's parlance. They love that Guthrie loved the Pacific Northwest — and are invested in proving to the reader that it was a sincere love, not just a business deal — because they love it, too, and they love him, and they want those loves combined. It’s a sweet thing but you don’t need to feel it.
More impactfully argued is that while they are regarded as minor works, Guthrie’s Columbia River tunes contain great writing about nature: “misty crystal glitter” is a very Gerard Manley Hopkins/Ghostface Killah way to describe water flowing through a dam. Scanned written texts of Guthrie’s songs open each chapter and are good ways to see those frequent imagistic details, as well as Mark Twain-ish dialect spellings and a rapper-esque precision with phonics — which he downplayed in the folksiness of his presentation.
But great as Guthrie could be, let us not forget that Seattle’s white guitar bias is how a book like this gets published in the first place. While we establish our new future, I predict we will see more similar works: look out for Willie in Washington, the tale of Willie Nelson living and writing songs in Vancouver, WA.
Nonetheless, 26 Songs in 30 Days is powerful. Vandy and Person do expansive justice to their narrow subject, swerving outside their coffee table book lane and crucially, big-upping Guthrie while filleting the notion of his unassailable musical-ethical integrity. This is a book that raises philosophical, artistic and ethical questions — by writers who very satisfyingly leave none of them answered — and gives the establishment what it wants while subtly poking holes in its white supremacy and idol worship.
Andrew Matson freelances around town as well as for NPR and Rolling Stone. Follow him @andrewmatson where he posts photos of his dog and talks endlessly about his monthly BAD RAP music event and its thrilling new comedy spinoff, BAD JOKES.
Follow Andrew Matson on Twitter: @andrewmatson