[Marxism] Woody Guthrie

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Fri Mar 26 04:57:17 MST 2004


We usually have an on-going sub to the New Yorker but it lapsed, as these
things do.  Fortunately, we have given our two sons -- John/Beba and
Peter/Mack -- subscriptions.  Mack passed on this NYer review of a just out
book on Woody Guthrie.  I'm more likely to get a Guthrie CD -- of which I
already have a number -- than a book on him but this does look interesting.

When I was growing up in Flag, the town was "filling up" with "Okies" [a
broad characterization which included all Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma,
Kansas, Arkansas, and West and Central Texas. We had Kansas and Oklahoma kin
which we sometimes visited.]  Highway 66 passed right through our town where
it was Santa Fe Street and many of these folks, welcoming cool [and cold]
clean air and high yellow pines, dropped off in Flag and environs at that
point to work in the woods.  [Many, BTW, were part-Indian.] Others went on
to California where they were frequently turned back into Northern Arizona
by California gunmen -- vigilantes and state police -- unless there was a
pressing need at the moment for "cheap" labor in, as Carey McWilliams put
it, the "factories in the fields."  California had just had, in the early
and mid-thirties, a flood of highly dramatic and generally very effective
strikes led by the legendary Pat Chambers and his intrepid colleague,
Carolyn Decker.  Both were Communists of the ecumenical stripe and both,
like the Jesuit missionaries, appear to have liked the frontiers far better
than the orbit of any Mother Church. And plenty of farm strike momentum in
California was continuing, especially in the Imperial Valley and the San
Joaquin. See Cletus E Daniel, Bitter Harvest:  A History of California
Farmworkers, 1870-1941  [Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1981.]

So I first heard of Woody when I was a little kid and we were all humming
"Oklahoma Hills" and related epics.  ["Way Down Yonder in the Indian
nations/Ride my pony on the reservation/Oklahoma hills where I was born. .
."]  I have always liked his stuff very much indeed -- along with that of
the obviously related Weavers and Almanac Singers.  The fine Labor Heritage
Foundation has recently issued a CD of "Talking Union and Other Union Songs"
[Almanac Singers via Smithsonian/Folkways] which I got as a gift this past
Christmas.  Labor Heritage [easily found on the Net] offers much more as
well, including Guthrie, Robeson, and Joe Glazer.

Anyway, this review which Pete sent me -- along with Random House's
discussion of Jack Weatherford's very fine work on another hero of mine,
Jenghiz [Genghis] Khan and the Mongols -- is interesting, and provocative.
[Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.]

"Genghis Khan was an innovative leader, the first ruler in many conquered
countries to put the power of law above his own power, encourage religious
freedom, create public schools, grant diplomatic immunity, abolish torture,
and institute free trade. The trade routes he created became lucrative
pathways for commerce, but also for ideas, technologies, and expertise that
transformed the way people lived. The Mongols introduced the first
international paper currency and postal system and developed and spread
revolutionary technologies like printing, the cannon, compass, and abacus.
They took local foods and products like lemons, carrots, noodles, tea, rugs,
playing cards, and pants and turned them into staples of life around the
world. The Mongols were the architects of a new way of life at a pivotal
time in history."

But back to Woody and the Times of Some of Us:

Whatever this new book may say, you do have to know the grassroots people --
when Dust Bowl and Depression were both barrels of a hideous weapon of those
very tough times -- to really appreciate Woody Guthrie et al.

2. A new bio of Woody Guthrie. Here's what the New Yorker says --

A new biography of Woody Guthrie.
Issue of 2004-03-29
Posted 2004-03-22
The folksinger Arlo Guthrie likes to tell a story about his father, the
legendary Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, at the age of fifty-five. When he
was a toddler, Arlo says, Guthrie gave him a Gibson acoustic guitar for his
birthday. Several years later, when the boy was old enough to hold it,
Guthrie sat him down in the back yard of their house-they lived in Howard
Beach, Queens-and taught him all the words to "This Land Is Your Land," a
song that most people likely think they know in full. The lyrics had been
written in anger, as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America,"
which Woody Guthrie deplored as treacle. In addition to the familiar stanzas
("As I went walking that ribbon of highway," and so on), Guthrie had
composed a couple of others, including this:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people-
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God Blessed America for me.

"He wanted me to know what he originally wrote, so it wouldn't be
 forgotten," Arlo Guthrie has explained.

Like the defiant, vaguely socialistic original words to his best-known song,
much of what Woody Guthrie was and did during his lifetime has been
forgotten, supplanted by the stuff of nostalgic sentiment. "This Land Is
Your Land," purged of its earthy contrarianism, shows up with "God Bless
America" on albums of patriotic music and in concerts by pops orchestras
that accompany the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and its author's face
has been put on a United States postage stamp. Woody Guthrie, a
contradictory man who vexed his family and his closest friends as much as he
challenged the authorities-"I can't stand him when he's around," Pete
Seeger, his friend and also a bandmate for a time, once said, "but I miss
him when he's gone"-scarcely registers as a creature of human dimension. In
the popular imagination, where he endures, more than half a century after
his creative prime as a writer and singer, Guthrie seems more like Gypsy
Davy, Rocky Mountain Slim, and other colorful folk heroes of the songs he
sang. He functions as the embodiment of gritty American authenticity, the
plainspoken voice of a romanticized heartland.

Guthrie was never really so authentic, as Ed Cray shows in "Ramblin' Man:
The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie" (Norton; $29.95), a work of tempered
debunking that is the first notable Guthrie biography since Joe Klein's
"Woody Guthrie: A Life," which started unraveling the lore in 1980. The
Klein book, fans of classic rock will recall, was the beneficiary of a sweet
plug on Bruce Springsteen's 1986 boxed set of live recordings; in a halting,
Okie-inflected voice, Springsteen complimented "this fella named Joe Klein,"
before moving into an acoustic-guitar version of "This Land Is Your Land."
Springsteen was then in the process of molting his leather jacket and his
urban ambitions to become a Guthrie-style troubadour of the mythic
hinterland, a change that signified his maturation within the rock world.

John Steinbeck-"the Woody Guthrie of American authors," as he has been
called-revered his musical compatriot in polemical realism. In his
introduction to "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People," a book of
Depression-era folk tunes compiled by the folklorist and activist Alan
Lomax, Steinbeck praised Guthrie's music for capturing "the American
 spirit," and noted, "He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he
is, in a way, that people."

Guthrie's people were in fact the upper-middle-class American élite. His
father, Charley Guthrie, was a prosperous real-estate speculator and
aspiring politician (a conservative Democrat and vehement anti-Communist) in
Okemah, Oklahoma, a boomtown in the oil territory of the newly annexed
state; at one time, he and his wife, Nora, owned as many as thirty rental
properties, and they were the first people in town to purchase an
automobile. Their third child, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, was born on July 14,
1912, twelve days after that year's Democratic Presidential Convention, and
named for the freshly nominated candidate. "Papa . . . swapped and traded,
bought and sold, got bigger, spread out, and made more money," Woody Guthrie
recalled accurately in his often fanciful memoir, "Bound for Glory." "We all
liked the prettiest and best things in the store windows, and anything in
the store was [ours] just for the signing."

The hard times of the early nineteen-twenties devastated the Guthries,
claiming the family's property and the children's buying privileges.
Unpersuaded by his parents' faith in capitalism, Guthrie eventually fell
sway to the socialist utopianism that was attracting the attention of
intellectuals, the young, the poor, and other disillusioned or idealistic
Americans during the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties. He was a
convert to disenfranchisement and always advocated the underprivileged with
a proselyte's zeal.

"Woody Guthrie," like "Bob Dylan" and "Springsteen," was essentially a
self-invention made for the electronic media: after a few years of
scrounging, singing for change, and passing himself off as a seer and a
faith healer, Guthrie made his name doing a comedic hillbilly act on Los
Angeles radio in 1937. He had moved to the city in the mid-thirties, a time
when outlandishly hokey cowboy singers were a novelty craze-a way for the
music and movie industries simultaneously to exploit and ridicule rural
culture for the pleasure of the urban audience. Cray describes a Los Angeles
"awash in country-hillbilly-cowboy-western music," with radio stations
broadcasting the likes of the Stuart Hamblen Gang, the Covered Wagon
Jubilee, the Beverly Hillbillies, the Saddle Pals, the Bronco Busters, the
Saddle Tramps, and the Sons of the Pioneers. Woody Guthrie rode the
marketplace like a saddle-sore poke on a long-tailed dogie (or some such),
crooning cowboy songs with his cousin Oklahoma (Jake Guthrie) and a cowgirl,
Lefty Lou (his friend Maxine Crissman), playing the spoons, spinning tall
tales, and reciting what he called his "cornpone philosophy" in a theatrical
Okie drawl that he employed to disarming effect for the rest of his life.

Guthrie's inchoate socialist leanings grew into a deep commitment to the
labor movement and to the social and political adventurism of the American
Communist Party. (Guthrie never joined the Party-his independence was such
that he "was not affiliated with anything," according to his sister Mary Jo;
he did follow the Party line, however, down to belittling Roosevelt as a
warmonger during the period of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, and he
wrote a column called "Woody Sez," in hillbilly dialect, for the C.P.U.S.A.
organs People's World and Daily Worker.) The first of Guthrie's three wives,
Mary, lamented his politicization as "his downfall as an entertainer," and
she had a point: the more he focused on rousing the masses, the less he
pleased the crowd. Guthrie's modest popular following diminished; at the
same time, through politics, he found his voice.

"I never did make up many songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping
through the sky," Guthrie wrote in "Bound for Glory," "but at first it was
funny songs of what's all 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

In a letter to Alan Lomax quoted (with its creative grammar and spelling) by
Klein, Guthrie expanded on this thought:

A folk song is what's wrong and how to fix it, or it could be whose hungry
and where their mouth is, or whose out of work and where the job is or whose
broke and where the money is or whose carrying a gun and where the peace
is-that's folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the
politicians couldn't find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of

Indeed, folk music has traditionally served as an outlet for native
discontent, often expressed in coded language (the boll weevil stands in for
field hands, the farmer's son is the government). Still, there is a great
difference between the folk songs that circulated in Woody Guthrie's day and
the music he wrote; that is, the very fact that he wrote it. Folk music
(including country, blues, and other vernacular styles) was supposed to be
anonymous-a collective art passed along orally from singer to singer,
generation to generation, sometimes culture to culture. From the vantage
point of today, when kids with their first guitars start writing songs
before they learn to play other tunes, it is difficult to process how
exceptional it was for a folk artist such as Woody Guthrie to have created a
vast repertoire of deeply idiosyncratic works. (Many Tin Pan Alley,
Broadway, and Hollywood songwriters of the thirties and earlier were as
skilled and prolific as Guthrie, but they were working in a different vein,
writing to order for professional singers.) Guthrie brought the authorial
imperative to vernacular music in America.

Guthrie, like many American musicians, was immeasurably indebted to black
music. In an unpublished manuscript quoted by Cray, he recalled that one of
his earliest childhood memories was of hearing a "Negro minstrel jazzy band
blowing and tooting and pounding drums up and down our street," a sound that
inspired him to "sing out the first song I ever made up by my own self." At
the age of thirteen, he discovered the blues; according to what Guthrie told
Lomax in an interview for the Library of Congress (released on a three-CD
set in 1989), he studied a "big ol' colored boy" shining shoes in front of a
barbershop and singing what Guthrie found to be "undoubtedly the lonesomest
music I ever run on to in my life." Each experience informs one of the two
main categories of Guthrie's songs. His light tunes (many of them, such as
"Car Song" and "Jiggy Jiggy Bum," written expressly for children) have a
free, joyful, improvised feeling; his ballads of hard life have the
impenitent rawness of Mississippi Delta blues, along with the blues'
harmonic structure (three chords, tonic, subdominant, and dominant) and, in
many cases, the blues' metre:

Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain
Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain
Had to throw a bucket of sand in her face
Just to bring her back again.

The Popular Front saw artistic refinement as a mark of bourgeois élitism,
and so did Guthrie. "Woody believed in simplicity like people in the Bible
Belt believe in their scripture," Guthrie's schoolmate Matt Jennings tells
Cray. Guthrie seemed to think of musical complexity as corrupt, and he wrote
most of his songs with just a few chords, in the key of G. (He would slide a
capo up the neck of his guitar to change keys, much as his nemesis Irving
Berlin, who could play only in F-sharp, used a special mechanism built into
his piano to transpose his songs.) Guthrie's melodies, many of which were
adapted from traditional sources, are as basic and memorable as schoolyard
chants, and the words are just as biting. (The music to the opening phrase
of "This Land Is Your Land" simply follows the first four notes of the major
scale, making the tune a model exercise for beginning musicians.) His
lyrics, similarly, seek to convey a guileless cleverness and intensity-a
pridefully untrained intelligence. Grammar and syntax give way, rhymes miss,
and accents fall awkwardly, all contributing to the songs' effect of
unadorned veracity, as in "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done," one of
Guthrie's many tunes about the Grand Coulee Dam:

I clumb the rocky canyon where the Columbia River rolls,
Seen the salmon leaping the rapids and the falls.
The big Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington
Is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done.

Once Hitler ventured into the Soviet Union and Stalin joined forces with the
Allied powers, Guthrie became patriotic; he supported the United States'
involvement in the Second World War and pasted a hand-painted sign onto the
front of his guitar: "This Machine Kills Fascists." He kept it there after
the war, in reference to another target: the cultural power brokers who, in
his view, oppressed folk artists by rewarding sleek professionalism.
Guthrie, now living in New York, challenged the commercial aesthetic of the
pre-rock era through a performance style that was not merely plaintive, like
that of countless singing cowboys in the movies, but almost combatively
anti-musical. In the dozens of recordings that he made between 1940 and 1952
(many of which have been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways in conscientiously
engineered and annotated CDs), his singing and playing are jarring: his
voice bone-gray, dry and stiff, and indifferent to pitch; his guitar work
spare and ragged, and frequently out of tune. Aesthetically, Guthrie was
less a socialist than an anarchist, contemptuous of the prevailing rules and

For all his advocacy of the common man, Guthrie sought to be recognized as
someone exceptional. Agnes (Sis) Cunningham, his sometime bandmate (along
with Seeger, Bess Hawes, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others) in the
Almanac Singers, the leftist vocal group of the forties, told me a few years
ago that Guthrie was "determined to become a legend in his own time." (Cray
quotes Hawes as saying that Guthrie was "desperate" to become "a big,
important person.") After all, he did not call his autobiography "Bound for
Obscurity," and the book is dense with folksy anecdotes that dramatize his
innate superiority to government officials, businesspeople, other authority
figures, and most of his friends. "Bound for Glory" captures Guthrie
vividly; he was fearsomely gifted and ambitious, and also egalitarian-a most
uncommon man.

Woody Guthrie succeeded in becoming a legend in the last years of his life,
as young people of the postwar era, seeking their own cultural identity,
veered away from the coolly sophisticated, urbane pop on their parents'
hi-fis in favor of more idiomatic music grounded in rural America-folk,
country, the blues, and their hybrid, rock and roll. Students by the
thousands massed in Washington Square Park each week to strum along to "This
Land Is Your Land," and to look for Woody Guthrie, the exemplar of the
folkie ideal. He was unable to take active part in his newfound idolhood,
however. Debilitated by Huntington's disease, a degenerative disorder of the
nervous system, Guthrie became a tragic figure to his young acolytes: an
American original cut down before his time, seemingly gone mad (wildly
erratic behavior being a symptom of the disease)-a living amalgam of Hank
Williams and Friedrich Nietzsche. When the nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan
arrived in New York from Minnesota in January of 1961, he told his friends
that he was going to meet his god, Woody. "He's the greatest holiest
godliest one in the world," Dylan said of Guthrie around that time-a "genius
genius genius genius."

Reflecting on the period later, Dylan explained, "Woody turned me on
romantically. . . . What drew me to [him] was that, hearing his voice, I
could tell he was very lonesome, very alone, and very lost out in his time.
That's why I dug him. Like a suicidal case or something. It was like an
adolescent thing-when you need somebody to latch onto, you reach out and
latch onto them."

With today's rock and pop feeling homogeneous, and with hip-hop now twenty
years old, popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will
surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream;
something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo,
harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal
training-that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie
did. If few nineteen-year-olds today think of latching onto Guthrie, his
spirit may be closer than they know.

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