Tom Petty, Woody Guthrie & the Genius of Simplicity

Tom Petty, on Vine Street in Hollywood, 2016. Photo by Paul Zollo

“His songs are deceptively simple. Only after they have become part of your life do you realize how great they are. Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.” —Pete Seeger

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Although those words, written by the great Pete Seeger, were about his friend and fellow songwriter, Woody Guthrie, they also apply perfectly to the singular greatness of Tom Petty’s songwriting. Both Tom and Woody well understood this fundamental truth at the heart of great songwriting. It’s something Tom had known since he was a kid, entranced by perfect singles by Buddy Holly and others that created an entire universe in under three minutes. He realized from the start that it’s easier to write a dense, complex song than to write that pure, essential one: that song which says everything and more with the timeless grace of simplicity.

Tom was not only a vastly gifted, creative artist and beloved popular entertainer, but also a master of simplicity, which, in songwriting and record making, goes a long way. Though influenced and inspired by Bob Dylan, his brilliant big brother in the Wilburys, Tom’s songwriting spirit was really much closer to that of Woody, who wrote “This Land Is Your Land” and other classic songs for the people. These songs celebrated, in the spoken language of the people, America’s spirit of hope, inclusion and expansive, natural splendor. And he did it with melodies so simple and sweet that any kid could learn it — and we all did.

Woody and Pete played and wrote folk songs – the songs of the people. It’s thst world where Dylan came from, imitating Woody and writing his first real song in honor of his idol, “Song for Woody.” Tom played rock & roll, but at his core was also a folksinger. His songs, like those of Woody, are folk songs. Songs for the people, about the people, and relatable to their lives.

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

Tom did that. His music – especially by the time of Full Moon Fever – appealed to all ages. Knowing that children grew up loving his music made him happy, he said, “because kids don’t lie.” He wrote songs for all people: songs in their language and in their own words. He wrote about where he came from – about the South in many songs – confronting directly the ongoing echoes of the Civil War, which still divide America to this day. In the opening verse of his beautiful, epic reflection of his Southern roots, he lays the truth on the line.

There’s a southern accent where I come from
The young’uns call it country

The Yankees call it dumb….

from “Southern Accents”

Throughout the years, Tom reflected Woody’s genius of simplicity in his writing. Both were savvy songwriters who knew what it took to make a good song and that simplicity wasn’t random; this was something they both honed and developed as time went on.

Take Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” or “Strawberry Fields” by Lennon, for example. You hear greatness, but you don’t hear simplicity. So many of Tom’s songs have a simple elegance and a kind of magic charm: “Free Fallin,” “You Wreck Me,” “Room At The Top,” “Wildflowers,” and many others. You get the sense they were almost immaculately conceived.

Other songwriters reached that divine place, such as George Harrison with “Here Comes The Sun” or Dylan’s “If Not For You.” But for those guys these songs were exceptions. Tom did it over and over.

I’m learning to fly
But I ain’t got wings
Coming down
Is the hardest thing

— from “Learning To Fly”

It wasn’t accidental. Tom was always keenly sympathetic to the balance of elements in a song. For example, if a verse was heavy or long he would compensate by ensuring the chorus was simple. He didn’t want his songs to be too heavy. They should be, as he said, “light – but not light-weight.” A perfect crystallization of this is in the aforementioned “Down South” from Highway Companion. The verses are so complete with beautifully rhymed details — such as his love of dressing like Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain, one of his heroes) — that he felt the original chorus was too ponderous and needed simplification. So, Tom freely broke the conventional rule of anchoring the chorus around the title. He instead crafted a poignantly tender chorus around a humble request and promise with words of sweet simplicity — both musically and lyrically — that are essentially Tom.

So if I come to your door
Let me sleep on your floor
I’ll give you all I have
And a little more
from “Down South”

In both his songs and his thoughts, as expressed in our conversations and others, Tom’s brilliance is reflected in a kind of folk wisdom. He had the rare ability to understand simple, fundamental concepts about songwriting and music-making that many people never grasp. He could also express brilliance, as he did in songs, with whimsical human stories.

Tom was extremely savvy about the craft of songwriting, knowing what he called all the “songwriter tricks” utilized for dramatic effects — such as key-changes. He was careful not to use “tricks” that seemed like obvious contrivances — such as dramatic key-changes — and understood that craft only matters when it enriches a song, not for its own sake.

“Often musicians tell me, ‘Tom, you have got to hear my new song. I use this chord you would never expect to hear in any chord progression!’ Well, the reason you would never hear that in a chord progression is because it doesn’t sound good!”

It’s a simple concept, yet one so often missed. Many times over the years, Tom reflected this same idea. “If you are working on a song, and you come up with a chord that seems really unusual, like it doesn’t fit there, it’s because it doesn’t. Take it out!”

In other words, you’re not writing songs to impress fellow musicians. You’re doing it to create “something timeless,” as he put it, something that sounds great now, and will only sound better tomorrow. His heart was always filled with love for the 45s he got as a kid — full of great, simple 3-minute songs. Though he loved Dylan’s expansive epics, Tom was always about making great records. This began with inspired and generously invested songs — designed precisely to be records — with the philosophy of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” This was art, but also entertainment.

To be clear, this is not to say Tom used the same chord progressions that had been used many times before. He didn’t. His genius shines most overtly to musicians who learn to play his songs and realize — as I have many times — that he was endlessly ingenious with chords.

When I mentioned that many of his songs do everything songs can do, and are only about three minutes, he said, “Yeah, that’s the idea. If you can do it.” He did it countless times.

Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue

— from “Into  The Great Wide Open”

This ambition was exemplified in the idea, as expressed by Krishnamurti, that limitation creates form. Within this small, restrictive, ancient song form, he could create whole universes. He did it, not by reinventing the form or the vocabulary, but by using these elements in ingenious ways. Though he certainly had inborn musical talent, especially for writing great melodies, he educated himself seriously in songwriting the best way there is — by studying the architecture of other songs, a kind of creative reverse engineering that forever enriched his music.

Just as countless songwriters who rose in his wake learned by studying his songs, he delved into the songs of others. His use of simple, repeating chord changes to underpin a compelling melody was something he learned from Buddy Holly.

“He could take the simplest chord structure,” Tom said regarding Holly, “where it never really moved, and find these incredible melodies.” It’s a technique Tom used in his most famous song, “Free Fallin’,” which repeats the same three-chord pattern over and over, but with one of his greatest and most memorable melodies. The melody, he emphasized many times, and not the chord progression, is what matters most. Although musicians might be impressed by unusual chord usage, people are moved, as they have been for eons, by melody.

But he was forever brilliant in his usage of fresh chord progressions, but always with simplicity and grace. Like Buddy Holly, he worked with the very limited number of chords available, and yet always created new universes. He had a theory, which he shares with us here, that Buddy Holly’s greatness can be attributed to his obsession with a single song:

“I think Buddy got really hooked on the song ‘Love Is Strange’ by Mickey & Sylvia… I think it had a huge influence on him. Because he wrote every derivation of ‘Love Is Strange’ that you can write. He turned those chords inside out, around, backwards.” 

As any musician who has played Tom’s songs knows well, he did the same thing as Buddy. He took the elemental chords of blues — and rock & roll — and turned them inside out, backwards and in every variation he could conceive. The one objective never shifted: It has to sound good.

Every piece had to be in place so all considerations, all signs of craft, would fall away. What remains is only that which is essential.

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free

— from “Wildflowers”

Like Woody, Tom understood the aim in songs was genuine expression, in authentic language, the way real people really speak. Like Woody, who felt the radio airwaves to be sacred, Tom cared deeply about his songs and how they were heard. Forever he fought to ensure that his work retained a pureness of heart, and never seemed false or hackneyed.

Tom’s hope and intention, although sometimes misconstrued, was that his most personal, specific statements in song would be received as being about all people, not only himself. Though his producer Rick Rubin disagreed, Tom wrote the lyric “You don’t know how it feels to be me” not about himself, but about the human condition. That we all feel that way.

Yet personal truth, as all humans come to learn, can both unite and divide people. Even today – headlong into the 21st century, some 150 years past our Civil War – the North-South divide in America is more pronounced than ever. Tom believed in laying the truth on the line in his lyrics, though he acknowledged it was a line he walked carefully, like a balancing beam, throughout his career.

I was born a rebel
Down in Dixie on a Sunday morning
Yeah with one foot in the grave
And one foot on the pedal
I was born a rebel.

— from “Rebels”

Tom wrote “Rebels,” as he explained, not as a historian, but as a songwriter. It emerged from an expression of reality, as seen through the eyes of a character. It’s a song genuinely reflecting that North-South divide, written in the language as it’s spoken.

Many critics interpreted it not as a reflection, but a true expression of Tom’s core beliefs. That same reaction to his work occurred with the release of The Last DJ, an entire song cycle condemning the crassness of modern times with the music industry at its center. That was but one symbol of cultural change that he used, but it was not intended to be his personal attack on the industry. Of course it was taken that way, so when Tom waved a Confederate flag onstage during “Rebels,” the flame of misunderstanding was fanned. He regretted this, and although he knew the potential risk of alienating the multitude of his Southern fans, he did his best to set the record straight. When a fan threw a Confederate flag onstage during the song, he stopped everything and said, “Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.”

Who we are, Tom felt, was Americans. Like Woody, he had a genuine reverence for America and its promise. That flame of hope, which has periodically dimmed, still persists in shining and is woven through his songs — from the first to the last. From his final album, Hypnotic Eye, came a sadly revised American dream, “American Dream, Plan B.” It’s not Tom talking in the song. For him, the American dream came true. Beyond true. Yet he knew that most Americans weren’t famous rock stars and many could never afford to go to a concert. Like Woody, he never lost touch with the reality of being a real person in America and in the world. He never cut himself off from the bloodstream of the people. In their character and their spoken language, he wrote in one of his final songs:

Well my mama’s so sad, Daddy’s just mad
Cause I ain’t gonna have the chance he had
My success is anybody’s guess
But like a fool I’m bettin’ on happiness

I got a dream
I’m gonna fight til I get it right

Til I get it right

— from “American Dream, Plan B”

The song he ended his shows with for years — and was the last song he performed live — is an essential, though bittersweet, American anthem. It’s about America as a country, the undying American spirit — which reverberates through all his songs — and the eternal yearning for something better:

She was an American girl
Raised on promises

She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life,
Somewhere else

— from “American Girl”

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