Woody Guthrie at 100

From revolutionary poet, to icon of American virtue…

by Gordon Campbell

In some respects, Woody Guthrie was the last Stalinist and the first Kardashian. A radical genius, he also worked himself to the bone perfecting his role as the “Oklahoma cowboy” and spontaneous poet of the Okie migration. This year, the world marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. For obvious reasons, it would be easy to conclude that Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl refugee and left wing balladeer is now a hopelessly dated figure from a distant time, with no current relevance whatsoever. Yet because Guthrie was such a consciously self-created figure he also seems as modern as anyone currently on the E Channel. Bob Dylan may have idolized Guthrie early on, but any artifice in Dylan’s Woody imitation was well and truly present in the original as well.

That artifice is a useful reminder of just how far back you have to go to find rural authenticity in America, straight from the pump. Like Leadbelly, Guthrie was among the last major American folk musicians to reach popularity before recorded music changed the cultural landscape forever. Yet that doesn’t mean Guthrie was ever a primitive. The son of a land speculator and a former journalist and radio performer before he became a folk musician, Guthrie was a self-made avatar of the dispossessed. That doesn’t lessen his achievements. But it should change the way we perceive them by simply reading his book Bound for Glory, or seeing the worshipful film based on it.

I’m not suggesting Guthrie was a fake, or something not as labeled. Its just that the role is a complex one. In reality, almost every bard of Americana from Guthrie to Bascom Lamar Lunsford to Mark Twain to Walt Whitman has had variations of the same charge levelled against them – that beneath the veneer of homespun virtue and natural born talent there lurked a master showman, ever ready for the chance to peddle to America an image of its own best intentions. The United States seems to feel an ongoing need for such figures, as cultural and political icons. Right now for instance, the United States is in the midst of another election year round of self-delusion about its essential decency and shared sense of purpose. The strain involved in such fakery is immense. Ironically, it is more likely to be the Tea Party that gets together this year and sings “ This Land Is Your Land” as a rebuke to the folks in Washington.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah. Oklahoma, His parents had named him after the Democratic politician who was the Governor of New Jersey, and about to be elected President of the United States. Guthrie’s father had been a local land speculator and Klan sympathizer present at the lynching of a black woman called Laura Nelson and her 15 year old son Lawrence from a bridge in Okemah, just twelve months before Woody was born.

In other words, Guthrie wasn’t born to poverty, but a series of family tragedies soon set him down that road. First, his sister died in a home heating oil fire accident. When Woody was only 14, his father – by then 50 and unemployed – was severely injured after being doused with kerosene and set alight by Woody’s mother Nora. She was committed to a mental institution for dementia believed to have been a product of the same hereditary Huntingdon’s disease that was eventually to claim the life of Woody himself, in 1967.

Under the care of his older brother Roy, Woody worked at odd jobs and developed his natural ability at music. He also read avidly and wrote constantly in notebooks, two traits that endured for most of his life. After his father re-united the remnants of his family in Texas, Guthrie began to earn money playing at dances with his half brother, Jeff who played the fiddle and did magic tricks. In 1933 at the age of 21, he married 16 year old Mary Jennings, with whom he had three children, all of whom died fairly young. In all, Guthrie married three times.

At the height of the Great Depression and with the advent of the Dustbowl era, Guthrie left Mary, his family and Texas behind him and joined the migration of people headed out from Oklahoma (and other south-western states) to the golden state of California, in search of work. Later, many of Guthrie’s songs were about the hardships faced by the Okies on the road, and after they reached their destination. [Image left of Dustbowl refugee by Dorothea Lange.]

By the late 1930s, the final parts of the Guthrie persona had fallen into place. During then, he had got a job – and his first taste of fame – as a radio star on station KFVD, playing and performing his own downhomey programme of hillbilly music and old folk tunes. (Woody was so successful he even contacted Mary again, and got her and the children to join him from Texas.) It was Ed Robbin, a newsreader on the station who introduced Woody to socialism and to the Communist Party, and Robbin later became his booking agent and life long friend. For Woody, socialism provided a personal explanation and a bridge between his own creative yearnings, and the injustice he saw all around him.

He was to turn that suffering into poetry in perhaps his finest composition – “Pastures of Plenty” – written during a one month burst of intense creativity in Portland that also produced “ Roll on Columbia” “ Talking Columbia” “Hard Travelling” and “Grand Coulee Dam ” among others. If many of the these songs were pastoral celebrations worthy of a Walt Whitman, a fair number of angry songs and a huge number of children’s songs also poured out of him. In “ I Ain’t Got No Home” Guthrie turned his back on the passive consolations of the old time spirituals, with their patient acceptance of the poor man’s lot. Justice was not something Guthrie was now prepared to find in heaven. He aimed to fight for it here on earth, with any means he could muster.

By then, he didn’t have many options. After Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1940, the pro-Soviet views of Guthrie and Robbins’ had become seriously unpopular at KFVD, and they both lost their jobs. Mary and the kids went back to Texas, and a penniless Guthrie lit out for New York. There, after the usual round of sleeping on couches and telling yarns for his supper, he eventually fashioned a career among like-minded friends (like Will Geer, Pete Seeger and – crucially – the folklorist Alan Lomax) as the bard of the common people.

Not that it was easy being a left wing artist at the outset of the war. The Hitler/Stalin pact had made it possible to attack Franklin D. Roosevelt as the pawn of Big Capital sending the workers off to war, and a number of radical peace songs urging isolationism briefly held sway in Guthrie and Co’s repetoire, even if that stance did link the radical left with the right wing isolationist types down at Time magazine. Once Hitler attacked Russia however, Guthrie and his New York friends shifted almost overnight into full throttle support for the war against fascism. Commercial success of sorts came first with the Almanac Singers and again later, when Woody’s laconically fatalistic Dustbowl song “ So Long Its Been Good To Know You” was slicked up and turned into a hit by the Weavers in the early 1950s, just before the first symptoms of his illness became apparent.

Well before the illness took hold (as John Szed wrote in his 2011 biography of Alan Lomax called The Man Who Recorded The World) Guthrie could be a conscious trial to those around him:

Guthrie could play the hillbilly to perfection when it suited him. He would claim that he hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath [which he would sometimes refer to it dismissively as The Rapes of Graft] or seen the movie, or would seem to be spontaneous as a jazz musician when he had prepared for hours in advance. The highbrow disguised as a primitive was a role that Alan understood and tolerated most of the time, the double disguise of the true revolutionary. Still, Woody could drive those around him crazy with his offstage posturing, sleeping on the floor, refusing to eat at a table, declining to bathe. Once when he came into Alan’s apartment and deigned to climb into bed with wet clothes and muddy boots, Alan erupted :“Your lumpenproletariat act is too much, Woody ! Grow up!” Guthrie seemed to be driven to test those around him, pushing them to reveal the extent of their belief in him.

Again, the same kind of needling – to the point of cruelty – became evident in Bob Dylan. With great power comes great opportunities for being a total asshole.

Like Guthrie, the Dust Bowl itself was something of a media creation. On the one hand, it was a genuine environmental catastrophe, yet overcropping and wind erosion were only one part of the story. People had come flooding into the Southwest in large and unsustainable numbers in the late 19th century. After WW1, the decline of small rural farming began in earnest, and the consolidation into larger farms happened to co-incide with poor international wheat and cotton prices and declining fertility on the land. These dire conditions began to drive out huge numbers of people long before the Depression hit, and the dust clouds began to form.

Between 1910 and 1930, some 1,300,000 people had already left the Southwest, and nearly a quarter of them had resettled in California. Difference being, these were primarily middle class folks seeking to better themselves, and not the desperately poor class of migrants who came later. The tide that arrived in the mid 1930s were the refugees who John Steinbeck was to immortalize in print, Dorothea Lange in her photographs, and Woody Guthrie in his songs.

Even so, the Dustbowl came to loom larger in the story than it should. Certainly, a long and severe drought during the early 1930s had made the topsoil vulnerable to being whipped up by the wind. It formed into great dust storms between 1933 and 1935 that would darken the sky for hundreds of miles in a section of the wheat belt where the Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico and Colorado panhandles converge. Farmers in that devastated region has little option but to pack up their families and belongings, and leave their old lives, churches and communities behind them.

Point being though, this phase of the migration was merely one part of a far larger exodus to California and elsewhere, that had been taking place for the previous 15 years and which would continue until mid-century. By 1950, rural farm areas in the Southwest supported two million fewer people than had lived there only 20 years before. Yet, in all, as the Dustbowl historian James Gregory pointed out in his 1989 book American Exodus, only 16,000 people from the Dust Bowl proper ended up in California, which accounted for only 6 per cent of the total outpouring of people from the Southwestern states. In Gregory’s opinion, journalists were mainly to blame for the perception that the Dustbowl was the prime cause and focus of the migration :

Confusing drought with dust, and assuming that the dramatic dust storms must have had something to do with the large numbers of cars from Oklahoma and Texas seen crossing the California border in the mid-1930s, the press created the dramatic but misleading association between the Dustbowl and the Southwestern migration.

Like Woody Guthrie himself, the Dustbowl and its unforgettable images [left by Dorothea Lange] are now an honoured part of the national folklore. They’ve become part of a national tapestry of common hardship endured, and surmounted by boundless optimism and sheer creativity. Fairly typical story. By one means or another, America has been trying to reclaim its lost virtue ever since the 1930s at least…and probably, since its very formation. Such a quest seems just as necessary now under the rule of the 1%, as income inequality reaches extremes not seen since the 1930s, or the late 19th century. These days however, the wandering minstrel who sings truth to power is probably more likely to be invited to sing at the White House, than he is to try and blow it up.

Footnote : Here is Woody Guthrie singing “ Pastures of Plenty.” (Guthrie used the folk tune “ Pretty Polly” as the melody.) In the mid 1970s, another singer from Oklahoma called James Talley recorded what is, to my mind, the best version of Guthrie’s great protest song “ Deportee” about the exploitation of Mexican migrant farm workers. On the same album, Talley also nailed “ This Land Is Your Land.” Almost everyone else sings or chants the song at a perky and meaningless tempo, but Talley slowed the song right down, an old interpretive trick that virtually re-invents “This Land” and lends it a poignantly conversational, modern meaning.