Woody Guthrie: a century of protest | Cerys Matthews

Woody Guthrie was born 100 years ago. Cerys Matthews, who first sang one of his songs aged five, and now plays him on her radio show, celebrates his political ardour and musical legacy

I first searched out Woody Guthrie's work as a youngster through being a fan of Bob Dylan, who had been hugely influenced by him. It was only then I realised I had already been singing one of Guthrie's songs for years. In "This Land Is Your Land" Guthrie claimed back post-depression America from the encroaching banks and landowners, and railed against the "No Trespassing" signs. It was written as a critical response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" and originally titled "God Blessed America for Me". In the years since, his socialist anthem has become his best-known song, being enthusiastically taken up by nationalists with versions in Hebrew and Welsh, a Canadian version, Namibian and Swedish. There is even a version specifically for Manchester United fans ("This badge is your badge, this badge is my badge!"). I often wonder what Guthrie would make of this modern world.

I learnt "This Land" at primary school in Wales, aged about five. It sounds wonderful if sung with two voices in close harmony and it became my mother's favourite song for my sister Rhiannon and I to sing in the car. Over and over and over. When I played a Woody Guthrie tribute show at the Hay festival earlier this year, I asked her on stage to sing it with me. It was the first time we've sung together in public, and for her the first time she had sung on a stage. But it seemed that I shouldn't do it without her.

Guthrie was born 100 years ago today, on 14 July 1912. His family broke up amid arson, death, poverty and madness, and he left his Oklahoma home at 18 to begin a lifelong habit of taking to the open road. His overriding inspiration was always the plight of the disenfranchised, and he lent his voice to the dustbowl refugees of the 1930s depression. His politics also extended into the wider world and he joined the marines in the second world war to fight the rising tide of fascism. With the famous logo written on his guitar, "This machine kills fascists", he wrote hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war and historic ballads to rally the troops. But he never lost sight of the practical, human dimension and also wrote songs about the dangers of venereal disease. No subject was taboo.

Forty-five years after his death Guthrie's voice remains clear and sure, not least because his strong moral values were infused by a wry sense of humour. He wrote great songs that could be understood and enjoyed by everyone, he knew the value of a good one-liner, a storyline and a catchy melody, and he never wavered from his mission to mean every word. Here are his thoughts on the effectiveness of song in spreading ideas: "There's several ways of saying what's on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain't too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing … No matter who makes it up, no matter who sings it and who don't, if it talks the lingo of the people it's a cinch to catch on, and will be sung here and yonder for a long time after you've cashed in your chips."

Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 song lyrics in all, and it is hard to imagine the man aside from his strong political ideals. But he was much more. He was a keen visual artist, a storyteller, playwright, novelist, news reporter, radio DJ, a verse and prose writer and an enthusiastic walker. He loved children, fathered eight himself and recorded an album specifically for children, Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child: "Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do. You'll be healthier. You'll feel wealthier. You'll talk wiser. You'll go higher, do better, and live longer here among us if you'll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do."

Does that sentiment sound familiar? It made me think of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" but also Dylan Thomas's 1934 poem "Where Once the Waters of Your Face", written when he was 19, in which he urges the reader to retain a sense of wonder against the increasing cynicism that comes with age. Also compare Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" to Thomas's "The Hand that Signed the Paper": "Yes, as through this world I've wandered / I've seen lots of funny men; / Some will rob you with a six-gun, / And some with a fountain pen."

Guthrie was highly influenced by African American culture too. He became one of the first white songwriters to popularise the documentary writing style, which adopts day-to-day trials and tribulations as subject matter. His "Talking Hard Work" simply lists the tasks he undertakes – shaking hands with relatives, kissing babies, changing nappies, harnessing wild horses, chopping wood, fiddling at church meetings – to prove to a certain lady he is not afraid of hard work so as to win her affections. There's more humour in "Take a Whiff on Me": "I've got a woman six foot four, sleeping in the kitchen with her feet in the door / Hey, hey baby take a whiff on me …" which celebrates a night out on cocaine and opium, substances that could once be bought legally over the counter in American drug stores.

Listening today to Guthrie's interviews with Alan Lomax, held in the Library of Congress, Guthrie's talk between the tunes sounds like prose spilling out effortlessly, drawing you into his world, whether telling of his tragic childhood or looking after a broody hen or learning to play guitar while selling root beer. I play Guthrie often on my radio show for 6 Music and try to include clips of him in interview since I enjoy his speaking voice and stories as much as his songs. Listeners love him and I will be dedicating tomorrow's show to him by playing my favourite songs, some interviews and reading some of his work. I'll also be joined by the great singer and musician Tom Paley, who played with Guthrie (and taught Ry Cooder guitar and Jerry Garcia banjo). Guthrie's legacy has universal appeal and is compulsive listening, whatever your political leanings, because his love was for life itself: "Life is this sound, and since creation has been a song. And there is no real trick of creating words to set to music, once you realise that the word is the music and the people are the song."

Cerys Matthews

The GuardianTramp

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