Bart Mills: Guthrie’s Rulin’s still worth following today


First Posted: 1/1/2014

When it comes to resolutions — heck, when it comes to most questions in this life — you almost can’t go wrong taking Woody’s advice.

I realize I should be a touch more specific here. I don’t want any of you basing important life decisions on the counsel of the cartoon cowboy from the “Toy Story” movies or even a legendary Buckeye coach. And while Woody Harrelson strikes me as the sort of fellow it might be fun to have a beer or six with, I’m not sure he’d be my go-to for serious life guidance.

No, the Woody in question here is Woody Guthrie, the late and exceptionally great singer and songwriter most famous for having penned the grade-school staple, “This Land is My Land.”

Having spent my life around singers, I would typically not suggest taking their advice on matters of general import. Sure, they can be brilliant and fascinating people, but they also have a tendency toward the sort of introspection that can leave them — and pardon the pun here — a touch one-note. The last piece of useful advice I received from a singer was to keep the tip of my tongue at the base of my lower teeth when singing vowels. Sadly, I was asking for stock tips at the time.

Woody wasn’t that sort of singer. He was the too-rare example of the heavy thinker willing to spend time engaged with the world. He was a champion of our better nature who used music as a tool for spreading both hope and outrage. If he were alive today, he would probably be sucked into some lesser form of debate, a think tank or newspaper column. Thankfully, he was stuck writing songs.

Songs and resolutions. On Jan. 1, 1943, Guthrie sat down and wrote a list of “Rulin’s” to guide him through the new year. He was 31 at the time, a father of three and already a fairly well-known protest singer. His list encapsulates the duality of his roles, both as a regular Joe vowing to get his life in order and a man bent on understanding and even changing the world.

Of the 33 items on Guthrie’s list, nine are aimed at personal hygiene. He vows to shave, take a bath, change his socks and “Wash teeth, if any.” All great, if obvious, suggestions for any time.

Another half-dozen of the “Rulin’s” apply to Guthrie’s work habits. He resolves to work by a schedule, write a song a day, save money and “Work more and better.”

He also makes vows about family life. He pledges to love his mama and papa, his singing partner Pete Seeger and everybody else. Rule No. 31 is actually “Love Everybody,” a noble, if challenging, goal.

After all the hygiene and living and the improved work habits, Guthrie gets down to the heavy lifting. It’s here that the list provides some real guidance and a window into the heart of a man who struggled with the same challenges we all face.

Item 15, for example, is “Learn People Better.” In 20 years of columns, I can’t say I’ve hit on anything quite as basic and vital to our own survival as those three words. My instinct is to expound on it, but that’s unnecessary. Woody put it as precisely as anyone could.

A few lines lower, at No. 17, he declares, “Don’t get lonesome.” He follows that up with No. 18, “Stay Glad.” And 19, “Keep Hoping Machine Running.” No. 20 is “Dream Good.” I’m not sure if he means to dream about good things, or to dream of doing good. In either case, it’s fine advice.

Finally, Guthrie gives us the two closing resolutions we should all add to our list for the new year. Once you’ve taken care of your body, sharpened your skills, embraced love and banished negativity, it’s time to get to work. Rulin’s 32 is “Make up your mind.” Number 33, “Wake up and fight.”

The writer in me wants desperately to elaborate on those last two vows. But this year, I’m resolving not to fix what doesn’t need fixing.

That, and to change my socks. Like I said, when it comes to resolutions, you can’t go wrong taking Woody’s advice.