By now you’ve probably seen something about Woody Guthrie’s centennial.
Words have been wrung out by the ton in his honor. So I’ll try to keep this brief.
I’m no Woody Guthrie scholar, and I have no paeans to add on the subject of his greatness.
He was, I suppose, as American as any American who ever lived. Few Americans, in any case, were more familiar with the peculiar outcroppings and hazardous recesses of Uncle Sam’s Backyard than Woody Guthrie.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla. The anniversary has passed, but I’ve been thinking about his timeless anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”
My father loved the song. Your father probably did, too. Seems everybody has laid claim to it. Every would-be troubadour with a guitar has taken a crack at it.
Hell, even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded a version. It is, of course, execrable.
That’s the problem. Despite Guthrie’s bone-deep distrust for all piety, his most famous song seems to summon an uncanny reverence from latter-day performers. It inspires a perverse respect for tradition.
A host of irreverent characters, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, from Neil Young to Tom Morello, from Johnny Cash to Steve Earle and Wanda Jackson, have been brought to heel by “This Land is Your Land.”
There’s at least one version that defies this trend, and it was produced by a friend of mine. Nonetheless, I think it’s time he gets his due.
If the song remains, as Steve Earle said, a work in progress, we can thank Jefferson Pepper for dragging it kicking, flailing and howling into the 21st century.
I can’t say it’s the best cover of “This Land is Your Land,” because I’m no music critic. I can say its my favorite. It blows the dust off the song. It picks the old boy up by the scruff of the neck and shakes it to life.
I don’t know Woody Guthrie from Woodrow Wilson, but I think he would’ve approved.
I like to imagine old Woody strapping on a Gibson Les Paul, complete with a “This Machine Annihilates Fascists” bumper sticker, and rocking it for all its worth.
I listened to to many versions, but nothing else satisfies. There are some cool versions, don’t get me wrong. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Little Feat with Mike Gordon, to name two.
Jefferson Pepper even out mojos Mojo Nixon. It’s not my dad’s Woody Guthrie. It’s a cri de coeur for post-9/11 America. It’s the treatment Joe Strummer might’ve given it, had Joe Strummer been born on this side of the Atlantic.
It is angry. It is searing. Yet is hopeful.
It is three minutes of democratic mayhem, the musical equivalent of the 2 minutes and 4 seconds Joe Louis treated Max Schmeling to at Yankee Stadium in 1938.
It is a scorched-earth indictment of corporate chicanery and a crackling call to action for anyone who still believes in the ideals Woody Guthrie embodied.
Unfortunately, there was no readily available Youtube video of Jefferson Pepper’s “This Land is Your Land,” which he recorded on his 2005 album “Christmas in Fallujah.”
I had to make one up myself. I’m no visual artist, as you’ll see. It’s rough, it’s ragged, and it’s sardonic. It is, as the kids say, what it is.
John Steinbeck had the following to say about Woody Guthrie:
“He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
I like to think Jefferson Pepper’s version of “This Land is Your Land” epitomizes what Steinbeck calls the American spirit, the spirit of Woody Guthrie. At least what’s left of it.
Please check it out: