Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads came to me as the soundtrack of Bound for Glory, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, which I read around age eleven, right after In Dubious Battle. I’m guessing my parents steered me to Steinbeck because of my infatuation with Woody — you hear an eleven-year-old singing about dust storms, what else are you going to do but hand him Steinbeck?
I don’t think I made an effort to learn the songs on that album — I just listened to it so often that after a while I knew most of them all the way through, and all of them some of the way through. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “Do Re Mi,” partly because of the great chorus, and because the message was clear and meaningful even to a kid who was growing up in a very different time and place.
A few years later, I almost got a taste of the reality, when my friend Rob and I got a super-cheap flight to London on Laker Airways, and something like a fifth of the passengers were refused entry and sent back to the US for lack of funds. (We were as impecunious as the others, but a distant cousin of Rob’s had just been elected Lord Mayor of London, so we gave the immigration authorities his number, and then had to wait for four hours in a little room while they debated whether it would be worse to bother the Lord Mayor about a couple of wretched Yanks with a guitar and a washboard (if we were lying) or turn away the Lord Mayor’s cousin (if we were telling the truth). Eventually they called him and let us in, with a visa for two weeks and the parting words, “I hope you have a pleasant visit, and that I will NOT see you busking in Green Park tube station.” Which was very helpful, because it told us where to busk. Except, actually, we ended up busking in the square near the tube station, and Rod Stewart walked past with his entourage, looking exactly like his current album cover, and, despite his own past as a busker, ignored us completely.
If Woody was around now, he’d be rewriting this song about Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Syrians.