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Do Re Mi

Do Re Mi


by Woody Guthrie


"And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about. . . . I never did make up any songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs or songs about what all's wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in the country was thinking. And this has held me ever since." – Woody Guthrie

Guthrie wrote gritty, vivid lyrics, and he himself stresses that his lyrics focused on describing the country as he saw it, not trying to make things sound prettier than they were. He shares this realism with John Steinbeck, and seems to have been inspired by the character-based storytelling that was also Steinbeck's strength.

Guthrie's realism in "Do Re Mi" takes the form of an admonition, spoken by someone in the thick of the Dust Bowl migration situation:

Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, folks, you ain't got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.

We know we've already made a pretty big deal out of the Grapes of Wrath connection, but there's yet another important one to talk about here. Although he may or may not have meant it this way, Guthrie actually aligns himself here with the role of a character in the book. When John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family leaves Oklahoma to try to find jobs and safety in California, they encounter a man named Floyd Knowles, who warns them that there aren't many jobs out west and advises that California is not the paradise it's been made out to be. Still, the Joads press on past increasing poverty and police checkpoints. They find out that Knowles spoke the truth and the book ends in the very tragedy "Do Re Mi" warns about: lacking money and connections, the Joads find themselves jobless, in the midst of death and despair in the fabled Garden of Eden. 

"Do Re Mi," although it is not at all plagiaristic, could very well be the imagined monologue of the character of Floyd Knowles. Structurally, the song is almost a character study of its own, a song version of one of the photographs by Dorothea Lange that did so much to raise awareness about the plight of the Okies.

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