Behind The Song: “Song To Woody” by Bob Dylan

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Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along …”

From “Song for Woody” by Bob Dylan

On Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album in 1962, there are only two original songs. One is a tribute to his songwriting hero, “Song To Woody.” The other is “Talkin’ New York,” a funny talking blues, a form he picked up from listening to Woody.

It says a lot about Dylan and his reverence for songwriting – and the great songwriters who did something pure and true – that he would start one of the most amazing songwriting journeys ever with this, an homage. A beautifully measured, and perfectly rendered homage.

Woody, obviously, meant a lot to Dylan; he represented a rare hybrid of a brilliant, ingenious songwriter and a man of conscience. A songwriter who could write songs as great as the greatest songs, but not cut off from the truth of life. When Woody saw the beauty of this land, he spilled that joy and splendor into songs like “This Land Is Your Land.” But he also wrote songs of the dispossessed and disappeared, those beaten down by this country, in “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Deportees.”

In the man and his songs Dylan saw his musical lighthouse. It was a model for a kind of songwriter that is what he became. His songs, like Woody’s, are always beautifully poetic and expansive in language. And yet also attached directly and vitally to life itself. It wasn’t about a contrivance calculated for effect, all built on the cleverness of one funny title phrase. It was about writing songs which mattered. Songs that, like the soul of the songwriter, were not phony. They were pure.

Woody was also a lighthouse for Dylan in that he drew him towards his destiny. Dylan was determined to meet Woody, who was then slowly dying of Huntington’s Disease in Morristown, New Jersey. That journey led him to New York City, where John Hammond signed him to record for Columbia. So it makes sense that the first song he wrote himself and recorded for his first album would be a tribute to another songwriter. Not a love-letter to a girl, or to the self, but to a songwriter, and to songwriting itself. That love is there in the lyrics, which poignantly mirrors Woody’s own cascading cadence while celebrating his life.

It’s also there in the melody, which is not original, but is the same melody of Woody’s song “1913 Massacre,” which Dylan performed at his first Carnegie Hall concert. It’s fitting and also funny that Dylan would freely borrow a melody for this song, as that was famously Woody’s pattern; rather than write a new melody, he’d write lyrics to an existing tune. Pete Seeger spoke about this as the age-old “folk process.” In modern times, as Arlo Guthrie has said, it’s also called plagiarism. But that was Woody’s way and his attitude. He wasn’t crafting tunes for hit parade. He was writing the truth, which to him meant ore than having to be, as Pete put it, “so damn original all the time.”

The irony is compounded by the fact that Woody’s tune for “1913 Massacre,” as one might expect, was one Woody borrowed himself. It’s from the old English folk song “To Hear The Nightingale Sing” which is also known as “One Morning In May.”

Dylan, a folk scholar, would appreciate this tracing of song lineage. But to him, he did more than borrow the melody. He borrowed the phrasing, the poetry, the perspective and more. He was writing about a man who was a hero to him, for the work, and for the truth which was its foundation. It resounded like an offering to the gods of songwriting. As in, “Before I go off and write the greatest songs which have never been written yet, first this show of respect to the elders, offered with love and gratitude.

In our interview with Dylan, he spoke of this essential truth at Woody’s core:

BOB DYLAN: To Woody Guthrie, see, the airwaves were sacred. And when he’d hear something false, it was on airwaves that were sacred to him. His songs weren’t false.

Now we know the airwaves aren’t sacred, but to him they were. So that influenced a lot of people like me coming up.

Like, “You know, all those songs on the Hit Parade are just a bunch of shit, anyway.”

It influenced me in the beginning when nobody had heard that. Nobody had heard that. You know, “If I give my heart to you, will you handle it with care?”

Or “I’m getting sentimental over you.” Who gives a shit?! It could be said in a grand way, and the performer could put the song across, but come on, that’s because he’s a great performer, not because it’s a great song.”

The idea of starting with a great song, not a weak one needing a lot of help to get it over, was a significant one in his songwriting journey, and forever shaped the arc of popular songwriting as we know it. He recorded it just before Thanksgiving, 1961 in pure Woody style: one guitar, one voice. It was released on his first album Bob Dylan in the Spring of 1962.

He recorded it again at Columbia in New York in 1970 with his pal George Harrison sitting in on guitar.

“Song To Woody”
By Bob Dylan

I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ and it’s hardly been born

Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I’m a-sayin’ and a-many times more
I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough
‘Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you’ve done

Here’s to Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too
And to all the good people that traveled with you
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind

I’m a-leaving’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too

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