Essential Woody Guthrie Songs

Best Songs by America's Most Famous Troubadour

Woody Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime—some are still being found today. Though he's most widely known as a topical songwriter and a champion of protest music, Guthrie's compositions actually run the gamut from political commentary to children's songs, love songs, and good old-fashioned, straight-up story-songs. So, if you're just becoming acquainted with Woody Guthrie's voluminous body of work, here's a list of some of his most remarkable, influential, and memorable songs.

"This Land is Your Land"

Woody Guthrie - The Asch Recordings
Woody Guthrie - The Asch Recordings. Smithsonian Folkways

"This Land Is Your Land" is easily one of Woody Guthrie's most popular songs. Written in response to "God Bless America," the refrain of this song was originally "God blessed America For Me." In addition to paying tribute to the extraordinary beauty and natural resources of the country, the song also addresses themes of workers' rights and land ownership. 

Though it has a similar theme to "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty much more poignantly and specifically addresses the concerns of migrant workers. In it, Guthrie sings of the plight of the migrant farmhand, who works all day in the field and can still not afford the food s/he's working to grow at the end of a long week. In many ways, it's as timely now as it was when Guthrie wrote it in 1941.

Woody Guthrie was a pretty devout Pentecostal Christian, and this song is one of many tributes to Jesus Christ that he wrote. But, unlike the Christian music that pervades Christian radio these days, Guthrie's view of Christianity was very plain and simple, seeing all people as equal and worthy, regardless of who they were and where they were from. So, "Jesus Christ" is also a song about the importance of activism and the tendency of humankind to consider people who speak out for the common man to be anti-social or criminals. 

Guthrie may have been considered hugely subversive as a songwriter for his day, but he was actually quite a devoted patriot. This song, written around the advent of World War II addressed all the remarkable accomplishments in human history, claiming that beating Hitler and the fascists was just another task for humankind to pull off. (Since his death, others have added verses to this song and applied it to everything from economic equality to the environment.)

Woody he recognized a great deal of value in the heroes of the poor and working class. This story-song tells about the famous outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, offering a little perspective to his legend, and suggesting that the term "criminal" is largely subjective.

This song recounts the Ludlow Massacre of 1913, where striking miners in Michigan saw numerous of their children trampled during a Christmas celebration after someone wrongly claimed there was a fire. Guthrie's song notes the possibility that it was one of the angry bosses who baited the stampeding masses down a steep staircase, killing dozens of children in the process. It contains within a song more of a history of this event than most people these days learn from a history book.

Though he was born in Oklahoma, Guthrie spent some time living in Texas and Southern California, very near to the Mexico border. He also spent a good deal of time traversing the US, riding the rails and interacting with migrant farm workers and other immigrants searching for an honest day's work. And, of course, he had a knack for writing songs that humanized unfortunately timeless issues. This is one of the more notable songs that he wrote as a tribute to the hard-working immigrants who crossed the border looking for a better life.

Where "Do Re Mi" addresses the aftermath of the Dust Bowl exodus, "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" addresses the whole story of how it started and what it felt like for the average person affected. It's a very characteristic tune of the era from which Guthrie emerged and a time and culture with which he's most often equated.

This song pays tribute to the countless people who lost their lives in the fight for unionization and the right to organize their workplace. A little-discussed part of American history, the song still retains its meaning as workers across all types of industries seek the inspiration to demand fair pay and benefits. 

This is one of Guthrie's most notable songs from his Dust Bowl Ballads collection, singing about the exodus of farmers and other folks who poured out of the "Dust Bowl" states to California seeking work. 

Guthrie's canon isn't only populated with topical songs and historically accurate troubadour tunes. There are also plenty of children's songs and songs about things like cars. In "Car Song", he paid tribute to the advent of the automobile, making engine and horn sounds into a playful, memorable ditty.

"Hard Travelin" is not just a catchy song about life on the road. It also talks about the history of migrant field workers who, during the Depression, would ride the train from job to job, falling on hard times along the way.

This is one of Woody's best historical context story-songs. In "The Sinking of the Reuben James", he did one of the things he always did best in his songwriting: putting a human face on the headlines. There was nothing explicitly political in his story-songs; they were more in the troubadour tradition of using music as a way of reporting on current events.

Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs about what it was like to be a migrant worker during the Great Depression. While this song retains that same theme, it focuses more on the empowerment of the worker and determination to not let anyone treat you with anything less than respect.

Moving a bit away from the songs about the Depression and those written for the working class, here's a song Woody Guthrie sang about a cheating woman. The woman in the song left her husband to run off with the gypsy singers. 

Guthrie wrote plenty of beautiful songs about unrequited love, and this one is a great example, written from the point of view of a woman who's been wronged by her man.

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Ruehl, Kim. "Essential Woody Guthrie Songs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/essential-woody-guthrie-songs-1322859. Ruehl, Kim. (2017, April 2). Essential Woody Guthrie Songs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/essential-woody-guthrie-songs-1322859 Ruehl, Kim. "Essential Woody Guthrie Songs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/essential-woody-guthrie-songs-1322859 (accessed September 19, 2017).