Folk hero Woody Guthrie and the lost Clyde tribute
SINGER songwriter Billy Bragg has uncovered a previously unknown lyric the legendary protest singer Woody Guthrie wrote about the River Clyde when he spent time in Glasgow during the Second World War.
Bragg told Scotland on Sunday that his decision to play a gig in Glasgow next month was inspired by the find of the lyrics that have never been played publicly and have been resting in Guthrie’s old home in the USA for decades.
Folk singer Guthrie is best known for his protest ballad This Land is Your Land and is credited with having inspired other celebrated musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.
Bragg said that he will perform Guthrie’s Going Up The Clyde, which he is setting to music, at one of only three gigs he is fronting in the UK and Ireland to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the American singer, who died in 1967 from Huntington’s disease – a progressive genetic neurological disorder.
Essex-born Bragg, who has recorded a series of covers of Guthrie’s music, said that the Clyde lyrics were written when the folk singer was serving in the US merchant navy in 1944 and spent time on a carrier transporting troops around to Normandy.
Bragg said that they were written as an anti-Nazi theme in keeping with Guthrie’s left wing politics and the times, but also refers to his impressions of Glasgow and the “resonance” he felt with the people of the city.
There are also references to Glasgow’s Red Clydeside period – the city’s era of political radicalism and industrial militancy and the emergence of figures such as the left wing Labour MP James Maxton.
Guthrie is now known as America’s first “punk-poet” and blue-collar hell-raiser. After arriving in New York City in 1940 he wrote This Land is Your Land but locked away thousands of songs and lyrics that could have landed him in trouble. After the war, many political song-writers were targets of government anti-Communist witch hunts.
Many of Guthrie’s hidden lyrics only came to light in the 1990s when Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, allowed access to his archives, which contained around 3,000 songs and poems, many of them never performed. Bragg was allowed to search her father’s stack of old writings, put some of them to music, and preserve his spirit through a series of albums – The Mermaid Project – for a new generation to appreciate. Guthrie lived on Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island, where he was visited by a young Bob Dylan who cited Guthrie as one of his main inspirations.
Going Up The Clyde was among the collection but it is only now that Bragg has decided to perform it in public. Bragg said the lyrics were given to him by Nora Guthrie as part of a vast collection of unperformed works her father had written.
He said: “Nora Guthrie asked if I was interested in doing a show in Scotland and gave me some of Woody’s archives, with written music and poems.
“In the archives I came across a poem that Woody wrote about going up the Clyde river in 1944 when he was a merchant seaman during the war effort.
“There’s a lot in there about how he went fishing in Glasgow and the Red Clydeside days, which he had lot of interest in.
“It’s also a lovely anti-Nazi poem and it’s about all the things Woody saw when he was toiling up the Clyde back in 1944.
“Woody wrote it when he was delivering troops to and from Normandy and he ended up in places like the Isle of Wight and Glasgow. He had a strong resonance with the people of Scotland”.
Meanwhile, Bragg said that his decision to appear at his Glasgow gig next month alongside Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall was partly because the artist “knows her Woody Guthrie”.
Critic Jonathan Trew said Bragg had been a long-term fan of Guthrie. “He has been doing covers of Guthrie songs so it wouldn’t be surprising that he found this poem about the Clyde in his collection.
“Guthrie wrote about the American Dustbowl and working class people so he probably empathised with what he found in Glasgow at that time. His guitar had a sticker on it saying ‘This Machine Kills Fascists” so it’s obvious where his sympathies lay.”
• Billy Bragg will play the Woody 100 Legacy Show at the O2 ABC Glasgow, 300 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow