Tulsa World Scene: Honoring His Muse

By Jennifer Chancellor - World Scene Writer

John Mellencamp's iconic style of working man's heartland rock can be traced to one major influence - folk musician Woody Guthrie.

He admits that he's also inspired by Bob Dylan, who admits that he took his cues from Woody Guthrie, as well.

Others who inspired Mellencamp, from Buddy Holly to the Rolling Stones, also cite the prolific, Dust Bowl-era folk writer as an influence.

So, now we're back to Guthrie, a musician who died just as Mellencamp was performing his first songs as a teenager.

"When I was growing up, my parents had a Woody Guthrie record - one Woody Guthrie record - in the '50s and early '60s, you know, to offset all the rock music that was coming at us at that point," he said during a recent telephone interview.

"It was Woody Guthrie who introduced me to looking at people like (Bob) Dylan and Donovan and those folk singers."

One album.

He doesn't remember the name of it, but he remembers the music.

He'll perform Guthrie's songs with a host of other musicians, including Guthrie's son Arlo, Hanson, Rosanne Cash and more at the "This Land is Your Land: A Woody Guthrie Centennial" concert March 10 at the Brady Theater.

The folk icon kick-started Mellencamp's long career and left an indelible mark on his own populist brand of authentic, folk-inspired, "heartland" rock.

Guthrie also taught him that it was OK to stand up for people and his community.

"That's the American way," he said, but admitted that artists have always run into resistance for speaking their minds.

"Well, that's always been that way. That's pretty much what they were saying to Guthrie, too, you know? 'Just play your songs and shut up and quit being political.' I'm sure that that's always been the case. That's just part of it. If that wasn't the case, then why wouldn't everybody speak their mind?"

He noted that one of Guthrie's most well-known tunes, "This Land Is Your Land," was written in opposition to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

"That's why Woody wrote it, because that song was so, just not true."

Though Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55, he is still quite possibly one of the most influential musicians of any generation, Mellencamp said.

It's impossible to name a favorite Guthrie song, but the singer-songwriter is quick to name the one he thinks he performs best.

"There's been so many, many, many songs by Woody that I've played. You know, the one I do best is 'Oklahoma Hills,' " he said.

Mellencamp is one of the top-selling and charting American musicians, with hits that include "Pink Houses," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Rain On The Scarecrow," "Paper In Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.," "Hurts So Good," "Jack And Diane" and dozens more.

But, "I've stolen so many lines from him it's ridiculous," he said, laughing.

"That's really the question you should ask everybody: 'So how much s--- have you stolen from Woody?' ... Oh, a lot. But if you look around at all contemporary songwriters who do pop songs. They'll tell you, 'Well, I stole this from Woody, I got that from Woody.' "

Guthrie often did the same thing, Mellencamp said.

"Of course Woody was a huge thief himself and proud of it. He'd take music and write his own lyrics. He'd rewrite other people's songs."

That's how most art is created, Mellencamp said.

"I mean, people would say, 'Woody, that song sounds just like so-and-so or such-and-such and he'd say, 'Well, gosh-darn it, I meant for it to!' "

There is perhaps one thing that has inspired Mellencamp the most, he said.

"Just being able to stand up for himself and be counted as an individual. Plus, he also lived outside of the music business."

In a time before major record label deals, arena tours and million-dollar contracts, Guthrie was out in the cotton fields playing to migrant workers. He wrote and performed because he felt compelled to, Mellencamp said.

"You, know, I've always been an outsider, too."

He credits Guthrie and his son Arlo - and Guthrie protegé Bob Dylan, as well as Willie Nelson and Neil Young - for the inspiration to create Farm Aid, a concert series that's helped save hundreds of family farms from foreclosure, among other things.

"Well, definitely. If you trace roots back, Guthrie was out playing for the workers and in the fields of California. So, I think Farm Aid is a direct descendant of what Woody's done."

In fact, it's a Woody Guthrie legacy, he said.

"Arlo has been in and out of participating in Farm Aid for 25 years, so Arlo was also a big influence on me, too. So I'm always happy to see Arlo and talk to him."