"One of Woody Guthrie's last songs, written a year after he entered the hospital, was titled 'I Ain't Dead Yet.' The doctors told him he had Huntington's chorea, probably inherited, a progressive degeneration of the nervous system for which there was no cure known. For thirteen more years he hung on, refusing to give up. Finally he could no longer walk nor talk nor focus his eye nor feed himself, and his great will to live was not enough and his heart stopped beating.
"The news reached me while I was on tour in Japan. All I could think of at first was, 'Woody will never die, as long as there are people who like to sing his songs.' Dozens of these are known by guitar pickers across the U.S.A., and one of them has become loved by tens of millions of Americans:
This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
"He was a short, wiry guy with a mop of curly hair under a cowboy hat, as I first saw him. He'd stand with his guitar slung on his back, spinning out stories like Will Rogers, with a faint, wry grin. Then he'd hitch his guitar around and sing the longest long outlaw ballad you ever heard, or some Rabelaisian fantasy he'd concocted the day before and might never sing again.
"His songs are deceptively simple. Only after they have become part of your life do you realize how great they are. Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity. Woody's songs for children are now sung in many languages:
Why can't a dish break a hammer?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because a hammer's got a pretty hard head.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
"His music stayed rooted in the blues, ballads, and breakdowns he'd been raised on in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Like Scotland's Robert Burns and the Ukraine's Taras Shevchenko, Woody was a national folk poet. Like them, he came of a small-town background, knew poverty, had a burning curiosity to learn. Like them, his talent brought him to the city,where he was lionized by the literati but from who he declared his independence and remained his own profane, radical, ornery self.
"This honesty also eventually estranged him from his old Oklahoma cronies. Like many an Oklahoma farmer, he had long taken a dim view of bankers. In the desperate early Depression years he developed a religious view of Christ the Great Revolutionary. In the cities he threw in his lot with the labor movement.
There once was a Union maid.
She never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks
And the deputy sheriff that made the raids.
"He broadened his feeling to include the working people of all the world, and it may come as a surprise to some readers to know that the author of This Land Is Your Land was in 1940 a columnist for the small newspaper he euphemistically called The Sabbath Employee. It was The Sunday Worker, weekend edition of the Communist Daily Worker. Woody never argued theory much, but you can be quite sure that today he would have poured his fiercest scorn on the criminal fools who sucked America into the Vietnam mess:
Why do your warships sail on my waters?
Why do your bombs drop down from my sky?
Why do you burn my towns and cities?
"I want to know why, yes, I want to know why. But Woody always did more than condemn. His song Pastures of Plenty described the life of the migrant fruit pickers, but ends on a note of shining affirmation:
It's always we've rambled, that river and I.
All along your green valley I'll work till I die.
My land I'll defend with my life if it be,
For my Pastures of Plenty must always be free.
"A generation of songwriters has learned from him-Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and I guess many more to come.
"As we scatter his ashes over the waters I can hear Woody hollering back at us, 'Take it easy-but take it!'"