“I’ve always said that Bob Dylan was the father of my country, but [Woody Guthrie] was the grandfather of my country,” said Bruce Springsteen earlier tonight as he became the eighth recipient of the Woody Guthrie Prize.
But more importantly, Springsteen said to expect new music shortly, casually noting, “We have a record coming out soon that’s set largely in the West,” he said. It will be his first release since last year’s Letter To You and follows 2019’s Western Stars, which also celebrated the American West.
The Woody Guthrie Prize, which annually honors an artist who speaks out for social justice through their works in a way that exemplifies the folk pioneer’s spirit. Past recipients include Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Mavis Staples, Kris Kristofferson, Chuck D and Norman Lear.
Guthrie’s daughter Nora inducted Springsteen saying, “First, you attracted us, then you magnetized us…You spoke for us and to us and to top it off, entertained us.”
Quoting her father’s words, she said, “You’ve got to vaccinate into the stream of people’s lives. Bruce never left that stream. His words have always consistently flowed in that big stream and blood of the people. No different from my dad’s…The troubadour’s job is to express that flow of what is happening in the people’s lives and that’s mirrored in everything you do….The greatness of your work lies in the fact that you continue to remain in this flow. You never abandoned it.”
Springsteen said he was 28 when he began searching for some sense of salvation—ultimately finding it in Guthrie’s music. “I was going through a period in my life when I felt strangely hopeless,” he said. He has written and released the bleak masterpiece, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, which, was a “dark examination of what I felt my community of people that I come from and that I was speaking to, who were under siege.”
Springsteen looked toward pop and country music in pursuit of hope, saying to Nora, “It wasn’t until I came across your father’s work that I found that hope.”
Guthrie’s “was the first music where I found a reflection of America that I believed to be true,” Springsteen continued. “Where I believed that the veils had been pulled off and what I was seeing was the real country that I live in and what was at stake for the people and citizenry who are my neighbors and friends.”
Springsteen was so influenced by Guthrie that he began performing “This Land is Your Land” in concert and found his music provided context “to [put] your work into some form of action and just a deeper telling of the stories of folks whose stories I often felt go unheard.”
In a short interview with Robert Santelli, Springsteen expanded upon the importance of “This Land is Your Land.” “Using that song in our show in the ’80s was a big moment for us because I was asking our audience to see us in a lineage of performers who were speaking to and for them and who had their eyes and lights set on a better world. That was a really essential moment in the turning of our work life.”
Guthrie “laid out a blueprint as a to way to go about that that could set you off on figuring the rest out on your own journey,” Springsteen said.
Santelli posited that Guthrie helped Springsteen expand geographically beyond his New Jersey roots, though Springsteen said he was already headed in that direction. “After my first two or three records I thought I don’t want to be labeled as… I love New Jersey. I’m from there [but] I’m interested in the country at large,” he said. “[Guthrie] took in the whole country and a whole vision that I found very very compelling and necessary and attractive and I wanted to try to fill just a little tiny bit of those shoes.”
The Boss spoke of the influence California had on his sound, dropping the news of the new set. “California was an enormous influence on some of my most topical writing through my ‘90s, 2000s and even now,” he said. “We have a record coming out soon that’s set largely in the West.”
The evening concluded with Springsteen playing two Guthrie songs on the acoustic guitar, before segueing seamlessly into two of his songs that serve as direct descendants to Guthrie’s material. He opened with “Tom Joad Part 2,” which, along with John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, was the inspiration for Springsteen’s 1995 song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Next came “Deportee,” Guthrie’s searing song about migrant workers. “Immigration laws are a mess to this day,” said Springsteen by way of introduction.
He then shifted to his own work, starting with “Across The Border,” a wistful song from the standpoint of a Mexican dreaming of the better world for him and his love on the other side of the border, before closing with “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”