I know myself well enough by now to have figured out that I shouldn’t make New Year’s resolutions. There’s no need for us to talk about just how long most of mine have lasted. Yet there is something I can’t resist about the inexhaustible optimism that lies behind a resolution—New Year’s or otherwise. So here I go again. But this year, instead of resolutions, I’m going to make rulin’s.
On New Year’s Day 1943, Woody Guthrie entered thirty-three “New Years Rulin’s” into his diary, complete with illustrative doodles for each. They are sweet to the point of naïve, but I can’t help but think that the world will be a better place in 2017 if we commit to at least a dozen of these. A quick Google search will find you the entire list, but I’m including my personal favourites, just as Woody penned them. “Work more and better. Wash teeth if any. Write a song a day. Wear clean clothes—look good. Read lots good books. Learn people better. Don’t get lonesome. Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Dream good. Play and sing good. Dance better. Love everybody.”
Woody Guthrie was the prototypal singer-songwriter. He inspired generations of artists, including the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and John Mellencamp, who would take up his torch and undeniably alter the musical landscape of the twentieth century. From a musical standpoint, there’s nothing overly complex or sophisticated in his songs. His most recognized song, “This Land Is Your Land” doesn’t even have much of a tune, but it’s one that has been forever engraved into the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of first graders for seventy-five years now. But anything more complicated would have been missing the point. Musical language does not always need to be complicated to be effective. It was Guthrie himself who said that anyone who used more than two chords was just showing off.
His songs are vehicles for his words, and his words are agents for change. In the time of the Great Depression, he saw a whole generation of people in front of him who were uprooted and dispossessed; he made it his mission to speak for them through his songs. His targets were war, racism, inequality and poverty. (And Donald Trump’s dad, who was briefly his landlord. I’m not making this up.)
If you think writing songs about these things is an ineffective weapon, Woody has some words for you: “You are a songbird right this minute. Today you’re a better songbird that you was yesterday, ‘cause you know a little bit more, you seen a little bit more, and all you got to do is just park yourself under a shade tree, or maybe a desk, if you still got a desk, and haul off and write down some way you think this old world could be fixed so’s it would be twice as level and half as steep.”
So pick a rulin’ or two, or make your own. 2017 is going to need us to.