Listening for traces of the Gospel in modern folk music

Woody’s Jesus

by Faith Phillips


Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to me
This world is such a great and a funny place to be
The gamblin’ man is rich, the workin’ man is poor
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
—“I Ain’t Got No Home,” written by Woody Guthrie and adapted by Bob Dylan

Just this past July, a rambling throng caravanned across the asphalt byway of I-40 to the sleepy town of Okemah. These travelers defied oppressive humidity, torrential rain, and the resultant mire to sit at the feet of musicians carrying on in various form the rich inheritance bestowed by Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie. From Wink Burcham’s devastatingly heavy performance in the dark enclave of The Brick to John Fullbright’s heart-rending delivery of “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” on the final night, the five-day festival proved the social issues that smoldered in Woody’s day remain: the plight of the immigrant, the struggle of those born into poverty, the systemic unequal administrations of justice, and the vast overreach of consumerism.

Folk singer-songwriters continue to echo the red-letter words of the New Testament and gospel music influences; its allusions infiltrate contemporary rock and roll/folk even now. Joe Baxter, an Oklahoma singer-songwriter from Midwest City, recalls, “I grew up in a real lower-class neighborhood. These poor people were moving in and needed help bringing their piano into the living room. The notes were written on the keys in lipstick. They had nothing else in the house, literally didn’t have a pot to pee in. Kids dressed in rags and dirty faces gathered around, and their mother started hammering out gospel tunes. I was just amazed,” Baxter said. “Here are these poor people that don’t have nothing—instead of worrying about getting everything moved into this house or where the next meal might come from, this lady was pounding out gospel tunes.”

Baxter recalled a particular era when gospel had a resurgence in popular music. “It could just be two or three words that opened the door for people like Roger McGuinn and other mid-60s folk-rock genre people to use those references. It was an era of rebellion before the ‘70s Jesus freaks. Turn on, tune in, and drop out—that didn’t involve Jesus. Sixties people were looking for something, and Jesus fit the bill. The fact that Dylan and Gram Parsons did that lent it some credibility.”

The most famous example of the Oklahoma gospel–Woody Guthrie connection is Bob Dylan. Dylan cut his songwriting teeth at the foot of Guthrie’s sickbed as he lay suffering from Huntington’s disease in Brooklyn State Hospital. Dylan later declared that he had begun his career by “writing like I thought Woody would write.” Bob Dylan’s spiritual inclinations in song are most often associated with the trio of albums released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love—a collection of songs rife with spiritual fervor, biblical imagery, and obvious gospel intonations. Those albums were met with an uproar from fans who, having previously pledged their undying devotion, howled in protest that the songwriter dare proclaim religious loyalties in song. But from the beginning, Dylan’s collective work contained a consistent thread of death and eternal preoccupation, the apocalypse, judgment, and biblical imagery. His debut album in 1962 was peppered with songs like “In My Time of Dyin’ ” (“Jesus gonna make up my dyin’ bed”), “Gospel Plow” (“All them prophets so good and gone / Keep your hand on that plow, hold on”), and a cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s plea to “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” (“Now I believe what the Bible told”). It is no wonder, since Guthrie was Dylan’s hero, that ideas spawned from biblical verbiage and instruction would have bled into Dylan’s burgeoning artistic quiver.

Although Woody didn’t necessarily sing old-time gospel music as it is traditionally recognized, he touted the word and deeds of Jesus Christ as depicted in the New Testament and decried the perversion of that message by a society riddled by greed and corruption. Oklahoma is widely known as the buckle of the Bible Belt, and over time struggling families clung to the Gospel as their last shred of hope. That cultural and spiritual inheritance has been passed down through generations of Oklahoma families.

But Woody Guthrie consistently called out Christians in song for the social injustices he witnessed that spat in the eye of Gospel teachings. He made no secret of it, blatantly singing in “Jesus Christ”:

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land

A hard-working man and brave

He said to the rich, “Give Your Money to the Poor”

But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave…

But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed him on the cross

And they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.

This song was written in New York City

Of rich man, preacher, and slave

If He was to preach what He preached in Galilee

They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.

The account of Jesus Christ and the money-changers at the temple echoes in the brutal indictment of greed and the oppression of the working class in “I Ain’t Got No Home.”


Recently, a vote went up in the Oklahoma legislature to secure funding for historical archives that would, in part, memorialize Woody Guthrie and his prolific contributions to Oklahoma music and culture. One argument in the Oklahoma State Senate debate used to rail against funding was that Guthrie was a communist and an atheist—despite the portrait of Guthrie that hangs pointing and chiding on the fourth-floor rotunda of the Oklahoma State Senate. Regardless of religious proclivities or lack thereof, Guthrie’s writings make clear that he admired and sang the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah evidenced an Okie legacy of musicians carrying on in that vein.

Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.