In the early 1950s, Woody Guthrie wrote a song titled “Old Man Trump.” Yes, that Trump. The song calls out what Guthrie observed to be the racist practices of his landlord, Fred Trump—father of Donald Trump—at the exclusively white Beach Haven public housing complex in Brooklyn. The folk singer sang about how Old Man Trump “knows just how much racial hate he stirred up … when he drawed that color line.”
Guthrie also added a Trump-inspired verse to his well-known song, “I Ain’t Got No Home”: “Beach Haven ain’t my home / I just can’t pay this rent / My money’s down the drain / And my soul is badly bent / Beach Haven looks like heaven / Where no black ones come to roam / No, no, no, Old Man Trump / Old Beach Haven ain’t my home.”
For Americana singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who regularly performs what she calls Guthrie’s lost verse, it’s as relevant now as it was when it was written.
“Woody knew for a fact that African Americans were being turned away,” she says. “It’s just making a big circle, it seems.”
It’s something music lovers understand all too well: good songs, whether written today or centuries ago, can provide insight, comfort and escape during hard times.
“During the Depression Era, people were seeking out solace,” she says. “They didn’t have much money to go out for entertainment, but they would go hear music as a relief from it all.”
This connection between hard times and good music is familiar territory for Williams. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana to renowned poet and literature professor Miller Williams and an amateur pianist named Lucille Fern Day, she was raised in towns throughout the South, including Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi. Not surprisingly, she developed a love of the blues early on. Now in her 60s, the singer-songwriter says she’d be surprised if someone wasn’t into the blues.
“Blues is a primal thing,” she says. “How could you not be into blues? It’s that kind of music that just moves you.”
Williams discovered her own songwriting sweet spot as a teenager, when she heard Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s blend of traditional music and poetry struck a chord in Williams and inspired her own songwriting, which merges the poetry world her father introduced her to and the folk, country, blues and mountain music she grew up around.
“I didn’t understand all the words yet,” she says, “but it was the first time I heard an artist bring my two worlds together.”
Telling gritty tales of America through the eyes of a poet is what Williams does best. She’s a no-bullshit artist whose what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality has made her a longtime favorite of American roots music fans. Her journey from the sweet folk singer on her 1979 acoustic blues debut album, Ramblin, to the road-tested, straight-talking rock veteran is remarkable—a testament to her toughness, kindness and authenticity. She’s a survivor; an artist who’s seen her share of hard living, but who has made it through with an open heart and stories to boot.
On her most recent album, 2016’s Ghosts of Highway 20, Williams revisits some of the places she knew and lived as a child. She describes the album’s title track as “kind of like Car Wheels, Part Two,” referring to her hit song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” from the 1998 Grammy-winning album of the same name. The difference between the two songs is her perspective and experience.
“In the song ‘Car Wheels,’ I’m the child in the backseat looking out the window,” she says. “In the song ‘Ghosts of Highway 20,’ I’m driving the car, looking out the window. One is about me as a kid, and the other is me looking back at the memories.”
The thread that runs through Williams’s work is that hard times are part of the human experience, but that there’s a richness and beauty in the shadows. When asked about the responsibility of artists during challenging times—whether Guthrie’s or ours—she says writing and performing songs that bring people closer and help create more understanding help her make it through.
“I have a certain responsibility as an artist, and that’s a good thing,” she says. “It gives me more to write about. And I get a lot of comfort from it. I do it for my own need, also.”
Lucinda Williams will perform at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. $36.60. 423-2053.