Behind the Song: “I Ain’t Got No Home” by Woody Guthrie

This is an undated photograph of folk singer Woody Guthrie, singing a song and playing his guitar. Guthrie has written hundreds of songs, celebrating migrant workers, pacifists, and underdogs. Two of his well-known songs are "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," and "This Land is Your Land." (AP Photo)

Recorded by Woody Guthrie, Beck, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan & The Band & Bruce Springsteen

Woody Guthrie, “I Ain’t Got No Home”

Behind the Songs is an ongoing series designed to deconstruct the dross of distortion and disinformation so often surrounding the origins of famous songs. We get to the truth, or as close as possible, by going to the source (by interviewing the songwriter).

Often, however, it’s impossible to interview the songwriter, because they are no longer alive. Today’s song, for example, was written by Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper. In such cases, we will rely on reliable sources, as with today’s song, the origins of which have been related by Woody’s wife Marjorie Guthrie (for more on Woody’s wife and Arlo’s mom, go here), Pete Seeger and others we have interviewed.

“I Ain’t Got No Home” is a song Woody wrote along with many other songs of the Dust Bowl, released on Victor Records in 1940 as Dust Bowl Ballads. It’s one of his most recorded songs, with great renditions by Bob Dylan & The Band, Bruce Springsteen, Beck and many others.

Dylan’s 1968 live version with The Band is a classic. From a tribute to Woody Guthrie produced by John Hammond, it’s got that exultant electric wild mercury sound of Dylan on fire. Yet it sounds great, unlike the poorly balanced sound mixes of previous performances since “going electric” (a dynamic but erroneous phrase, since he always used an electrically-powered PA, even when playing solo acoustic). It’s got that great funky Basement Tapes sound of The Band, with Richard Manuel cooking on the piano. Also, the great Ry Cooder is on mandolin.

Bob Dylan & The Band, live, “I Ain’t Got No Home”

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This song was never a bonafide hit for anyone, and yet has become somewhat of a folk standard, recorded so often not for any commercial considerations, but because it is a great song. It’s emblematic of Woody’s vision of his job as a songwriter in the world. His mission always was to write songs for the people. Songs of substance. Songs of hope. To him, the radio-waves were sacred because they they were a public trust; they brought songs to the people. He took this job seriously, not to create meaningless diversions from the hard realities of life, but to bring songs that unified and empowered people living these lives.

“The worst thing that can happen,” Woody wrote, “is to cut yourself loose from the people. And the best thing is to sort of vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people.”

This song did exactly that when he wrote it back in 1940. Its greatness is affirmed by its relevance today. It’s an unfortunate truth that, like most of his greatest songs, its message speaks as clearly now to this American moment. In 2021, more Americans are homeless in their own homeland than ever before, and these numbers are quickly expanding as families decimated by the pandemic gradually run out of resources.

Woody wrote this song, as he did other famous songs, as a response to a song he didn’t love. He was a guy who felt the radio airwaves were sacred, and the time of the people not to be squandered on non-consequentional songs. Or even worse – songs which made people feel down, at a time when so many were already feeling beaten.

Woody heard the gospel song “Can’t Feel at Home” sung at the migrant camps. It’s a song the Carter Family made famous in 1931. Woody hated the fundamentalist message of the song, directed to all those souls dispossesed because of the Dust Bowl, and forced to flee their little towns. The song tells them to endure their suffering, because their reward would be in heaven, not on earth.

This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through
My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue;
Where many Christian children have gone on before,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.


Oh Lord, You know I have no friend but you
If Heaven’s not my home, Oh Lord what would I do?
Angels have taken me to Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

From “Can’t Feel At Home”
Traditional. Recorded by The Carter Family


Woody didn’t like this notion of suffering on earth with your eyes on the afterlife. He wasn’t after the afterlife at all. He was about now. He wrote it surrounded by the Dust Bowl refugees, homeless now in the heartland.

Oddly, there is a verse in this song that is not usually included about Trump. Not Donald, however, but his father Fred Trump, who was the landlord at Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn where Woody and his family lived for two years starting in 1950. Trump had a policy of not renting to black families, which outraged Woody. As was his way, he used songwriting as his means of expressing this rage at the overt racism. He wrote a song called “Old Man Trump” about the senseless bigotry of this man. Though the Guthries were gone by 1952, the songs remained.

“Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!”

From “I Ain’t Got No Home”
By Woody Guthrie

Beck, “Aint Got No Home”

“I Ain’t Got No Home”
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Was a-farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore

3

Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

© Copyright 1961 (renewed) and 1963 (renewed) by Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. & TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)

Marjorie Guthrie


For more Woody, Arlo and Marjorie Guthrie:

1. A Conversation with Arlo’s mom, Woody’s wife and a champion for them both,
Marjorie Mazia Guthrie.

2. Interview with Arlo from Lockdown, 2020
A New Conversation with Arlo Guthrie

3. A Compendium of Writings, Drawings and Songs by Woody Guthrie
Seeds of Man


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