Woody Guthrie’s Songwriting Wisdom

Guthrie is in many ways our prototypical singer-songwriter, showing the young Bob Dylan, among countless others, how to use old songs to make new ones.
Woody Guthrie with guitar

For a guy just past his 100th birthday, who in fact died 45 years ago, Woody Guthrie has been remarkably active in the songwriting business lately. In the past year or so, we’ve seen no fewer than four albums of new Guthrie songs, on which his previously unpublished words are set to music by a small army of fellow songwriters. Jonatha Brooke dug into Guthrie’s writings to bring us The Works; Jay Farrar of Son Volt teamed up with Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames to create New Multitudes; the Rob Wasserman–produced Note of Hope included contributions from Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Lou Reed, and many more; and the project that started this wave of posthumous collaboration, Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue, was released in an expanded edition with a third volume of songs. Meanwhile, the three-disc box set Woody at 100 (Smithsonian Folkways) introduced six unreleased original songs sung by the man himself, from the 1939 recordings “Skid Row Serenade” and “Them Big City Ways” to the sweet lullaby “Goodnight Little Cathy.”

Guthrie had already produced an extraordinary body of work during the 1930s and ’40s, including such indelible songs as the Dust Bowl ballads “Do Re Mi” and “I Ain’t Got No Home,” the migrant workers’ tales “Pastures of Plenty” and “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” the irresistible kids’ songs “Riding in My Car” and “All Work Together,” and of course the folk national anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” But these songs are just a tiny taste of his creative output, as became clear during my visit to the Woody Guthrie Archives, which preserve some 3,000 song lyrics as well as a vast collection of journals, letters, poems, book manuscripts, drawings, and watercolors. The archives, which, under the guidance of Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, will soon move from New York to a permanent home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have been the source of all the new Woody Guthrie material in recent years, and they will no doubt continue to generate a lot more in the years to come. As I spent a few days browsing Guthrie’s writings on war and sex and family and songwriting and unions and just about every other imaginable topic, I found it nearly impossible to believe that they could have been produced by one man—especially one whose life was cut short by Huntington’s disease at the age of 55.

These writings, and the new albums that have tapped into them, provide a fresh perspective on a true icon of American music and culture, and a seminal influence on guitar-picking songwriters in particular. Guthrie is in many ways our prototypical singer-songwriter, showing the young Bob Dylan, among countless others, how to use old songs to make new ones, how to find poetry in everyday language, and how to write lyrics with a real social purpose. Guthrie demonstrated these things by example, through the songs themselves, but he also frequently ruminated on the songwriting process in his journals and letters. What follows are some lessons and instructions that songwriters can take from Guthrie—as much as possible given in his own inimitable words (reproduced here in their original state, with Guthrie’s idiosyncratic spelling and grammar left intact), drawn from various sources in the archives as well as his published works.

Keep It Simple

One of the beauties of the archives is that they contain not only thousands of songs handwritten or typed by Guthrie, but very often these lyric sheets have annotations and commentary that fill the margins and even spill onto the back of the page. In one notebook filled with original and traditional lyrics, Guthrie set down the words to “When the Saints Go Marching In” and added some thoughts on the qualities that drew him to songs. An old spiritual like “Saints,” he wrote, has three things that “a good song has got to have afore it is beloved forever by the People. First is Simplicity, so everyman and woman in the world can sing them from the top of their spirit and to the bottom of their heart. Next is Naturalness—without no pretense—no sham—no finery… Third—Truth—that will be recognized by every singer, rich and pore, educated and illiterate. These old Hillcountry Gospel Songs has them three unbeatable qualities that make ’em live forever: Simplicity. Naturalness. Truth. Can you beat it?”

Don’t Get Fancy

In his own writing, Guthrie aimed for the same qualities that he admired in traditional songs—and he emphatically rejected the kind of musical and lyrical sophistication that typified Tin Pan Alley popular music of the era. “I ain’t a writer,” Guthrie insisted in his introduction to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, a book of militant topical songs collected by Alan Lomax and transcribed by Pete Seeger. “I’m just a little one-cylinder guitar picker.” Being a songwriter, Guthrie continued, was more a matter of having something to say than developing special skills.

woody guthrie singing and playing guitar as a young man with a group
Courtesy Woody Guthrie Archives

“You are a songbird right this minute. Today you’re a better songbird than you was yesterday, ’cause you know a little bit more, you seen a little bit more, and all you got to do is just park yourself under a shade tree, or maybe at a desk, if you still got a desk, and haul off and write down some way you think this old world could be fixed so’s it would be twice as level and half as steep… It wouldn’t have to be fancy words. It wouldn’t have to be a fancy tune. The fancier it is the worse it is. The plainer it is the easier it is, and the easier it is, the better it is—and the words don’t even have to be spelt right… They don’t even have to rhyme to suit me. If they don’t rhyme a tall, well, then it’s prose, and all of the college boys will study on it for a couple of hundred years, and because they cain’t make heads nor tails of it, they’ll swear you’re a natural born song writer, maybe call you a natural born genius.”

Use and Reuse

If an existing song had the simple, natural quality that Guthrie loved, he was apt just to use it directly, and write new words to an old melody, for instance. Many of his most famous songs were based in part on other songs. Even “This Land Is Your Land” uses the melody from the hymn “When the World’s On Fire” as performed by the Carter Family. Another example of this folk-process adaptation from Guthrie’s songbook is “Pastures of Plenty,” based on the one-chord traditional tune “Pretty Polly.”


woody guthrie paying down and reading a newspaper with guitar
Courtesy Woody Guthrie Archives

In a manuscript titled “How to Make Up a Balladsong and Get Away with It,” Guthrie described the process of working out a melody for a new song. “I never waste my high priced time by asking or even wondering in the least whether I’ve heard my tune in whole or in part before. There are ten million ways of changing any tune around to make it sound like my own. I can sing a high note instead of a low note or a harmony note for a melody note and put in a slow note for several fast ones, or put in several fast ones for a slow one.”

Guthrie was a believer in not only reusing old songs but reusing his own. A case in point can be heard on the Woody at 100 box set, with the classic “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” First comes a version from 1940, recounting a dust storm that hit Pampa, Texas, in 1935: “This dusty old dust is a-getting my home,” he sang in the chorus (which borrowed the melody of the folk song “Billy the Kid”), “And I got to be moving along.” Four years later he recorded an entirely new version with Cisco Houston that depicted a soldier heading off to fight in World War II, with the chorus ending, “There’s a mighty big war that’s got to be won / And we’ll get back together again.”

Keep Your Eyes Open

In his manuscript on “How To Make Up a Balladsong,” Guthrie described how song ideas can come from everywhere in your daily travels, and you need to be ready at all times to jot them down (see photo, below). As the archives make abundantly clear, Guthrie was a sharp and curious observer and constantly trying to capture in words what he saw. In an Acoustic Guitar interview in 2001, Pete Seeger talked about a plane trip to Pittsburgh in 1946 to sing for striking Westinghouse workers, during which Guthrie “made up verse after verse after verse about the towns we were flying over, wondering what life was like in those towns, and then looking at the pretty stewardess and wondering what her life was like,” Seeger said. “He literally wrote verses everywhere he was every day.”

handwritten note by woody guthrie
Courtesy Woody Guthrie Archives

In laying out his songwriting approach, Guthrie described reading in the papers about “all kinds of disasters” from floods and car wrecks to disease outbreaks in the slums. “Any event which takes away the lives of human beings, I try to write a song about what caused it to happen and how we can all try to keep such a thing from happening again,” he wrote. “I can’t invent the news every day. Nobody can. But I can do my little job, which is to fix the day’s news up to where you can sing it. You’ll remember it lots plainer if I can make it easy for you to sing the daily news at your job or else at your play hours.”

Write About the Fight

Guthrie found content for songs not only in tragic events but in all sorts of human drama. “A poem or a song that tells about any kind of a fight will catch most every eye that can read,” he wrote. “A song or poem that tells about a love affair, legal or illegal, will catch most every eye and ear that can hear. The fight can be a fight that leads up to a love affair. Or your song can tell about how a love affair led up to a fight. Love affairs and fights are all tangled up like dry leaves in a spider web.”

For Guthrie, the fight depicted in a song could be between people or against tough circumstances. “A flat blue million songs have already been wrote and sung about the fight you’ve got to put up to keep your mouthes half fed and your house and home going,” he wrote. Rooting for people in their everyday struggles was one of the fundamental themes in all his songs—and in the songs of those who’ve followed in his footsteps, from Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg to Ani DiFranco and Tom Morello.

Collect Titles

In his manuscript, Guthrie followed the above thoughts about “the fight” with a list of 150 titles, starting with “Single Girl Blues” and “Two Hungry Babies” and proceeding through “Hock Shop Rag,” “Trifling Husband,” “Jealous Mother,” “Stabbing at Home,” “Down Payment Scream,” “Mean Boss Ballad,” “Headache for Breakfast,” scores of union-related titles, and some lighthearted examples such as “Laughy Tickle Mommy,” “Freedom Jitterbug,” and “I Love Folks.”

Capturing titles like these is “more than half the battle to catch your ballad,” he concluded. “I’ve got thousands of titles laid away like postal saving bonds. I spend hours and hours just writing down my ideas for titles to my songs.”


Think About Today… and Tomorrow

Guthrie’s lyrics often recounted real-life events, but he was aware that the best songs also transcend their moment in time. In a 1941 letter to his fellow Almanac Singers Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays, Guthrie wrote, “Our job aint so much to go way back into history, that already been done, and we caint spare the time to do it all over again. Our job is the Here & Now. Today. This week. This month. This year. But we’ve got to try and include a Timeless Element in our songs. Something that will not tomorrow be gone with the wind. But something that tomorrow will be as true as it is today. The secret of a lasting song is not the record current event, but this timeless element which may be contained in their chorus or last line or elsewhere.”

Paint a Picture
Though Guthrie preferred conversational language without “finery,” he made sure to pack his lyrics with images and scenes. The words to “This Land Is Your Land” are almost cinematic, and in the lesser known alternate version (which can be heard in a 1944 recording that opens Woody at 100), Guthrie made his political points through imagery rather than argument: “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property / But on the backside it didn’t say nothing / This land was made for you and me.”

As if to underscore the importance of visual imagery, the original manuscript of “This Land” from 1940 includes a note at the bottom saying “all you can write is what you see.”

Other passages in Guthrie’s notebooks suggest that he was very conscious of using sensory detail. On a poem written in a 1943 journal, he added a note-to-self in the corner of the page: “Make more visual.” A datebook from the following year makes a similar point. “Instead of empty phrases which bring no vision or picture image to the mind, like ‘Oh, Freedom! Oh! Liberty!’ use such words as, ‘Shoes a’ comin’! Bread a’ comin’! Land gonna be mine! Eatin’ at th’ welcome table!’” The use of such specific things rather than abstractions, he wrote, is “why folk songs, ballads, games, dances have always outlived the phoney creations of confused composers.”

woody guthrie playing guitar
Photo by Robin Carson, courtesy Woody Guthrie Archives

Tune into Others

Guthrie’s songwriting drew on his own roaming and rambling around the country, but he looked far beyond his own life to write about those he encountered along the way. As Utah Phillips noted in a 1997 Acoustic Guitar interview, in Guthrie’s songs the lines are blurred between what he experienced and what he saw or read about—because everything seems personal. “Even when he was writing about someone else,” said Phillips, “he would still transpose it into the first person, as he took these journeys into himself.”

In a 1942 letter, Guthrie described how “a writer has got to be able to sit and tune his mind and body not only to all of his own personal ups and downs but to everybody’s and to anybody’s also.” A writer, he said, should “more or less be the recording machine for other peoples worries, blues, mix-ups and fights. Not only in small personal senses, but broad social ways and in the broader esthetic ways. To squeeze the kernel of useable good out of all his experiences… and then to report by written word what good is to be had in the worst of things and what bad is in the best.”

Let the Facts Speak for Themselves

Guthrie cautioned, though, that the desire to find that “useable good” often led songwriters to try too hard or to make overly sweeping statements. He made this point vividly in a 1940 letter to Lomax with wide-ranging thoughts about songwriting.


“A little dog just got run over down below in the streets, a taxi hit him,” Guthrie wrote. “I could make up a song about how it sounded to hear the little dog yelping to the little boy a watching out of the third floor window across the street. I had a big dog once and all of the kids played with him and liked him and he would go and get their baseball when they knocked it too far or he would run in their football games and stand around with his eyes shot over and his ear stuck about half way up and his tongue running in and out of his mouth, his head cocked over sideways like and watching the kids shoot marbles. But an old neighbor lady with something haywire in her head went and poisoned the dog and it killed him and the kids all had a big funeral for old poochy they called him and they dug him a nice grave and painted his name on a flat rock and it was a plum heartbreaking affair. You could write a song about that and it would contain enough of all the high and low feelings to put it over if the blame was properly placed on the old lady that poisoned the pooch. I think one mistake some folks make in trying to write songs that will interest folks is to try to cover too much territory or to make it too much of a sermon. A folk song ought to be pretty well satisfied just to tell the facts and let it go at that.”

Don’t Try Too Hard to be Funny

In the same letter to Lomax, Guthrie went on to describe a similar “tell the facts” approach to using humor. “The best of all funny stories have got a mighty sincere backbone,” he wrote. “Those are the old deathbed and graveyard and parted lover songs that I sing more than any others when I need to cheer myself up. And there is something very funny about almost everything that happens if you do a good job of a telling just exactly what took place.

“People that laugh at songs laugh because it made them think of something and they want you to leave a good bit up to their guesswork and imagination and it takes on a friendly and warm atmosphere like you was thanking them for being good listeners and giving them credit for being able to guess the biggest part of the meaning. Lots of songs I make up when I’m laughing and celebrating make folks cry and songs I make up when I’m feeling down makes people laugh. These two upside down feelings has got to be in any song to make it take a hold and last.”

Do the Work

For songwriters as well as those creating in any other medium, one of the most powerful lessons to be drawn from Guthrie’s journals is the importance of writing every day—to keep that channel open no matter what comes out or whether you feel inspired.

“Your songs and your ballads, just like every other kind of a job of work you’ll ever do, will be just as good as the number of days and months and weeks and years that you put in as a song and a ballad maker,” Guthrie advised in “How To Make Up a Balladsong.” “You are always on the job. There is no let up, no rest, no vacation for you and for the ballad maker in you. You are always your own boss, you and all of your people around your world here. You’re always going, always looking, always fishing, always catching some more of your old and new ideas.


“Every step you step you’ll be hunting for more ballad ideas. You have to go just like the newsreel camera crew goes, or like the news reporter goes, or like the artist always goes to the real place where people are living through the things your song is all about.”

In the years since Guthrie left us, generations of songwriters have carried on the quest of going to that “real place” and trying to capture it in words and music. At 100, he continues to remind us of the power of songs and the creative life.

“There’s a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again,” Guthrie wrote in his diary in 1942. “Or it takes you back down the road somebody else has come and you can look out across the world from the hill they are standing on.” These words come to life on the album Note of Hope, read by Pete Seeger over Tony Trischka’s banjo and Rob Wasserman’s bass.

“There never was a sound that was not music,” Guthrie wrote. “There’s no real trick of creating words to set to music—once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.”

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

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