Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Will Kaufman: 'Woody Guthrie - Hard times and hard travellin'' at the British Library, 25 February, and
Barney Hoskyns discussing Tom Waits and 'Lowside of the Road' at Waterstone's, Gower Street, 4th March.
The thing about music is that even with those singers or musicians who aren't right up there with your favourite singers or musicians, there's usually something you can talk about.
And the thing about talks about musicians is that they give you an authoritative, nicely-distilled account of the life and work in as little as an hour. I had a brief Tom Waits phase, in the early 1990s I think when, finger on the pulse as ever, I listened mainly to his early-eighties Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs albums. "Lowside of the Road", though, the new Waits biography, weighs in at a hefty 650 pages and I'm just not interested enough to plough through that.
Hoskyns divides the story into two parts. Waits spent much of the seventies hanging around bars in Santa Monica and song titles like "Closing Time", "The Piano Has Been Drinking", "The Ghosts of Saturday Night" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" give you a pretty good idea of his lyrical concerns in those days. Then in 1980 (Hoskyns's part two) Waits met and married Kathleen Brennan, under whose seemingly Yoko-esque influence he suddenly distanced himself from long-time associates and adopted a more experimental and theatrical approach in his music, viz.
Is it music? Is it theatre? Beats me. Great though, isn't it?
Will Kaufman is professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, which means he gets to read and write about Woody Guthrie and is paid for it. Cuh eh? As a semi-professional folksinger for over thirty years, he also gets to sing Guthrie's songs. He makes a decent job of it too.
Born in oil boom town Okemah Oklahoma, Guthrie moved to Texas when the Depression set in then, with thousands of other "Okies", was driven from his home by the drought and ferocious winds of the Dustbowl and moved to California. Here he travelled round the migrant camps chronicling the Okie sufferings in the face of the outright hostility of the local community and the unions' struggle for acceptable working conditions and a decent wage.
As a songwriter, Guthrie was prolific to the point of manic obsession: huge amounts of material survive in the Woody Guthrie Archive, hundreds of song lyrics, many of them never put to music and some of them scrawled on bits of newspaper, napkins from restaurants, bus tickets, anything he could write on that happened to be to hand at the time.
Pictures and music like this tell you all you need to know about the Dustbowl. No wonder whole communities were uprooted and forced to move hundreds of miles away from their homes...