Why does Dylan like “I aint got no home”?

By Tony Attwood

Everyone knows that Woody Guthrie had a big influence on Bob Dylan.  But why?  What was it in Guthrie that Dylan liked so much?

The most obvious answer to me is that I suspect Bob Dylan, from his youth, saw himself as the outsider, the kid who liked music that others didn’t know about, the kid who was interested in things that meant nothing much either to his parents, his teachers or indeed his fellows in the classroom.  The musical rebel who loved Little Richard.  If his house was anything like mine in my youth the words “What is that noise?” might well have rung out on occasion.

I suspect therefore that as he started writing songs and playing guitar, he felt he had something, but quite possibly those around him, not too used to the type of music he was experimenting with, really didn’t think much of what he was doing.  Did he get told to “stop messing with the guitar, study hard, get a proper job”?   I don’t know but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did – and if that is the case then we can understand the link to Woody Guthrie more readily.

For Guthrie famously said, I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that….songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.”

Woodie Guthrie was himself considered an outsider – an Oklahoman (Okie) living in California but he coped with his, from my understanding, by singing about the life he and his compatriots left behind.

From there he moved on to singing about corruption, about outlaws, the rights of migrant workers, and other regular causes of those promoting the well-being of those without, in a land where some people are very much “with”.

So the outsider is central to the Woody Guthrie theme, and “I Ain’t Got No Home” is a central part of that collection of songs – think of “Hard Travelin’” as well – a song referred to by Bob in his song for Woodie.

We also know from the biographies that Guthrie was unconventional in his thinking, a rebel, and an observer of all going on around him.

The big difference between Guthrie and Dylan, as far as I know it (and I am not an authority on Guthrie) is that he had a life of set-backs and hardships, and I sometimes wonder if Dylan didn’t think that really he ought to have had more hardships himself in order to be able to write more authentic songs.   He didn’t of course – the songs about the collapse of a way of life on Times they are a-changing, that total non-protest LP, suggest a complete understanding of what it is like to suffer as a member of a minority.

During the dustbowl period Woody Guthrie travelled – the hard travelling of riding on the freight trains, walking and begging lifts, that has become part of the story of the travelling blues man, the gamblers and the rest of just kept on moving on.

In New York in his later life Woody Guthrie teamed up with the blues men and folk singer of the era we now remember, creating the environment that Bob Dylan could fit into when he hit town, years later, and it was the Woody Guthrie songs that helped legitimise the music of the left wing folk singers.

“I ain’t got no home in this world anymore” was written in 1938 and appeared on the “Dust Bowl Ballads” album he released in 1940 – originally as a set of 78rpm discs.  It was the most successful collection or album that Guthrie ever made, although the record company refused to re-release it in the 1960s, uncomfortable with the left wing messages within many of the tracks.

So in many ways it would be curious, given what we know about Bob Dylan and his early songs, if he didn’t like this song in particular, symbolising as it does the most successful part of Guthrie’s carrier.

What the song does it give a dignity and humanity to the wandering hobo – establishing the credentials as human beings who are travelling not because they are feckless but because of the circumstances they find themselves in.   They have no home, not because they’ve wasted away their income on drink or other unworthy pastimes but because that is the hand that fate, or maybe God, has dealt them.

I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

The point is truly made in the second verse with the use of the word “stranded” – there is no progress for these people, no way out of their misery, they are stuck where they are, as by-product of unforgiving capitalism.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

And of course in such circumstances things can only get worse and worse

Was a-farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

And above all, there is no way out…

I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
‘Cause I ain’t got no home in this world anymore

And yet the song sounds almost upbeat which is the strange irony of the whole piece.

Thus Dylan started out by taking the song into his soul and making himself the man without a a home; he sings and feels the part totally.

But of course there is only so far that one can go with a song like that.  If you want to take it further you need to take it somewhere else…

 This version of I Ain’t Got No Home was recorded at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1968.   There was a particular reason for choosing the song at this time as this concert represented Bob’s first appearance in public for 18 months.

Also involved in the concert were Odetta, Pete Seeger, Jack Elliot, and Judy Collins.  Dylan played three Woody Guthrie songs: “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

It is interesting that in 1967 Dylan composed and recorded  John Wesley Harding, which in much of its content really does give us Dylan’s insights into his view of the drifter as part of American society.   My Drifter’s Escape story is here, but if you are a regular here you will know where I am going with this…

From Woody Guthrie to Thea Gilmore.  That’s quite a journey.

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