"Jolly Banker": Woody Guthrie on the Financial Crisis of Yesteryear and Today

Mark Allan Jackson


On March 22, 1940, during the course of an epic recording session with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, Woody Guthrie drifted into a tune he referred to as “I’m a Jolly Banker” or, alternatively, “The Banker’s Lament.” But the former title best suits the song, for the financier who appears in it expresses no mourning, sorrow, or regret.  Instead, along with the jaunty tune to which the song is set, the narrator exudes gaiety, cheerfulness, and merriment, all while engaging in the kind of fiscal shenanigans endemic of the era of the Great Depression and, more currently, of our own Great Recession. Guthrie turns the exuberant main character into a parasite, one leeching out the very lifeblood of his debtors at a time when they are most vulnerable, crushed by the twin realities of environmental and economic devastation. In 2009, members of the band Wilco took up Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker,” finding new meaning in the song written seventy years ago, giving it new life in the context of our own struggles — thus explicitly connecting the past struggles with financial wrongdoings to our own current ones. For the bankers, their actions, and their allies needed to be pilloried again, just as they did in Guthrie’s lifetime.


Woody Guthrie; “Jolly Banker”; Wilco; Wall Street; Depression; Recession; financial crisis

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