America Is Still Singing Woody Guthrie's Songs

Published on
by

America Is Still Singing Woody Guthrie's Songs

Tom Morello performs a song in tribute to the icon at the Woody Guthrie centennial concert in Chicago 5/19/2012. (Photo: Swimfinfan/cc/flickr)

Woody Guthrie, America's most revered troubadour for social justice, would be 103 years old if he were alive today. He was born on July 14, 1912. Although he died in 1967 at 55, his songs have endured. They are still sung around the world. In fact, his popularity has grown in recent decades as we learn more about the treasure trove of Guthrie's remarkable songbook.

Guthrie wrote almost 3,000 songs, but he is best known for "This Land Is Your Land," often considered America's alternative national anthem. Most Americans know the chorus -- "This land is your land, this land is my land / From California, to the New York Island / From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters / This land was made for you and me" -- and perhaps even some of the verses about the "ribbon of highways," "sparkling sands," "diamond deserts," and "wheat fields waving." But few people know the two radical verses of the song, which are usually omitted from recordings and songbooks used by schools and summer camps:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing"
But on the other side it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Guthrie penned the song in 1940 as an answer to Irving Berlin's popular "God Bless America," which he thought failed to recognize that it was the "people" to whom America belonged. In the song, Guthrie celebrates America's natural beauty and bounty but criticizes the country for its failure to share its riches. The lyrics reflect Guthrie's assumption that patriotism and support for the underdog were interconnected.

Many Americans heard Guthrie's radical verses for the first time in January 2009 when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen included them when they performed the song at a pre-inaugural concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with President-elect Obama in the audience.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. His parents named him for Woodrow Wilson, who would be the Democratic Party's successful presidential candidate that year. But as Woody grew older, his political views would become closer to those of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, who got 16.4 percent of Oklahoma's vote in 1912, more than any other state except Nevada.

Guthrie's father was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician who did well during the oil boom, went bankrupt during the economic downturn, and struggled throughout the 1920s; the family often lived in shacks. Both his father and mother (who was eventually institutionalized for mental illness, later revealed to be Huntington's chorea) taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes.

In 1931 Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas, and formed the Corn Cob Trio and then the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band, both singing cowboy songs. In 1935 he left for California looking for a way to support his young family. He hitchhiked and rode freight trains, earning money painting signs, playing guitar, and singing in the streets and saloons along the way.

Guthrie had his first big break and taste of success while living in Los Angeles from 1937 to 1940. He landed a job on a local radio station, KFVD, singing cowboy songs, hillbilly tunes, religious hymns, and old-time ballads as well as his own compositions. He initially performed with his cousin Jack, but found a larger audience -- with two shows a day, six days a week -- when he joined forces with Maxine Crissman, known as "Lefty Lou".

His audience -- including many Okies (from Oklahoma) and Texans living in makeshift shelters in migrant camps -- grew, and Guthrie began adding political and social commentary to his songs. His experiences in South California during the Depression inspired his radical views about social and political conditions. He wrote songs about families facing foreclosure by unscrupulous banks, migrant Mexican farm workers exploited by agribusiness, and politicians who turned a blind eye to the widespread suffering. He also penned patriotic songs about America's promise and its natural beauty, and angry songs encouraging Americans to organize unions and protest against injustice.

While working at KFVD, Guthrie met Ed Robbin, an editor for People's World, the Communist Party's West Coast paper, and actor Will Geer, another left-wing activist, who introduced him to the local radical scene. Robbin helped Guthrie get bookings entertaining at local benefits (some at the homes of Hollywood stars) to raise money for striking workers and other left-wing causes. Geer traveled with Guthrie to support union organizing drives among cannery workers, cotton pickers, and construction workers throughout California. He also sang at the New Deal's government agricultural camps that provided a handful of migrant workers with food, safe water, and decent housing.

Guthrie's songs of that period -- including "I Ain't Got No Home," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Hard Travelin'," and "Tom Joad" (based on the hero of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about migrant workers) -- all reflect his growing anger and his mission to give a voice to the disenfranchised.

In "Pretty Boy Floyd," Guthrie portrayed the outlaw as a Robin Hood character, contrasting him to the bankers and businessmen who exploit workers and foreclose on families' farms and homes: "Yes, as through this world I've wandered / I've seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen."

In "Do Re Mi," he wrote about the Los Angeles Police Department's illegal blockade at the California border -- hundreds of miles outside its jurisdiction -- to stop Dust Bowl migrants from entering the state unless they had fifty dollars or could prove they already had a job.

California is a garden of Eden,
A paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not,
you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.

In 1939 Guthrie began writing a column, "Woody Sez," for People's World, commenting on the news of the day. The next year, the party's New York paper, the Daily Worker, picked up the column.

Always restless, Guthrie moved to New York City in 1940 and was quickly embraced by radical organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and progressive intellectuals. He performed occasionally on radio and developed a loyal following. His admirers viewed him as an authentic proletarian, filled with homespun wisdom that energized his songs and columns. Much of Guthrie's image was the result of his own mythmaking and that of his promoters, particularly folklorist Alan Lomax. In reality, Guthrie came from a middle-class family and was a prodigious reader and self-taught intellectual.

Lomax recorded Guthrie in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that contributed to this "folksy" impression. Lomax's efforts were part of an upsurge of popular left-wing culture -- fostered in part by New Deal programs like the federal theater and writers' projects -- that promoted folk and traditional songs as "people's" music. In addition to Guthrie, Lomax also helped Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, an ex-convict from Louisiana. Lead Belly played the twelve-string guitar and wrote and performed songs like "Midnight Special" and "Bourgeois Blues," which captivated liberal middle-class audiences in New York and other cities.

In New York, Guthrie joined a growing interracial circle of radical musicians, actors, poets, writers, composers, dancers, and political activists. Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell formed the Almanac Singers to perform songs about current events for unions, left-wing groups, and other causes. Guthrie sang on several Almanac singles and two albums, Deep Sea Chanties and Sod Buster Ballads, and often performed with the Almanacs, including at a huge rally in Detroit sponsored by the United Auto Workers union.

Guthrie wrote some of the Almanac Singers' most popular songs, including "Union Maid." He had a gift for writing songs that told stories about current events and real people but were also timeless in terms of exploring issues of justice and fairness. He was also a brilliant satirist, writing songs that made fun of business leaders, politicians, Adolf Hitler, and such right-wing figures as aviator Charles Lindbergh and Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest."

In early 1941 the Almanacs performed songs opposing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plans to enter World War II -- a view that Communists applauded but that alienated many of their admirers, including Eleanor Roosevelt. After Germany broke its truce with Russia and invaded the country in June of that year, the Almanacs changed their tune, writing patriotic songs that embraced the war effort and the US alliance with Russia to defeat Hitler. They were back in Mrs. Roosevelt's good graces.

When their songs were in sync with the New Deal, the Almanacs were courted by commercial promoters. They sang on national network radio, made records, and performed at night clubs, including the upscale Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. Guthrie had several regular radio gigs of his own. But the Almanac Singers' political views -- including Guthrie's -- were too controversial to sustain mainstream success. After Seeger joined the army and Guthrie signed up for the merchant marine (he was later drafted into the army, serving until 1945), the Almanacs broke up.

For a month in 1941 Guthrie was on the New Deal payroll, earning $266 to write songs for a documentary film about the Grand Coulee Dam, which brought electricity and jobs to Oregon and Washington. He moved to Portland, Oregon, and quickly wrote some of his most memorable songs, including "Roll on Columbia" (about the Columbia River), "Grand Coulee Dam," and "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done."

While in the merchant marine and the army, Guthrie composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-WW2, and other songs to inspire the troops, including "All You Fascists Bound to Lose," "Talking Merchant Marine," and "The Sinking of the Reuben James." Guthrie painted the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. In 1943 he published his first novel, Bound for Glory, a semi-autobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years that contributed to his reputation as a rambling troubadour.

By 1946 the Red Scare had made it harder for Guthrie to find work. Many of the Congress of Industrial Organization unions had purged their radicals and no longer welcomed Guthrie.

After the war, Guthrie returned to New York and settled in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with his second wife, Marjorie. While living there in 1948, Guthrie was angered by newspaper and radio accounts of a plane crash near Los Gatos Canyon in Fresno County that killed 32 people, including 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported back Mexico. The New York Times story, for example, mentioned the names of the flight crew and the security guard, but simply referred to the other victims as "deportees," who were buried in a mass grave in Fresno. Guthrie's song about the incident -- "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," often known as "Deportee" - expressed his outrage at the mistreatment of Mexican migrants. He gave them symbolic names -- "Goodbye to my Juan/Goodbye Rosalita/Adiós, mis amigos/Jesús y María". He protested their exploitation in words that surely resonate today:

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Woody's son Arlo, born in 1947, became a popular folksinger following his debut antiwar hit album, Alice's Restaurant, in 1967. His daughter Nora, born in 1950, later became the head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and the founder of the Guthrie Archives.

His children and his new surroundings in Coney Island inspired Guthrie to compose and record several albums for kids, including, Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Work Songs to Grow On. Several generations of parents have raised their kids with Guthrie's songs, many of which provided valuable lessons for living, including on such topics as friendship ("Don't You Push Me Down"), family ("Ship in the Sky"), neighborhoods ("Howdi Doo"), chores ("Pick It Up"), personal responsibility ("Cleano"), and family vacations ("Riding in My Car"). Guthrie was also connected with Brooklyn's Jewish community through his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, and wrote several songs with Jewish themes, including "Hanuka Dance," "The Many and The Few" and "Mermaid's Avenue."

In the late 1940s Guthrie's behavior became increasingly erratic, even violent. These were symptoms of Huntington's chorea, a rare hereditary degenerative disease that gradually robbed him of his health and ability to function physically. Doctors at first mistakenly treated him for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia. In 1954 he was admitted into the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, where he was finally properly diagnosed. For the last decade of his life, he was confined to hospitals, barely able to communicate. Many family, friends, and young fans -- including Bob Dylan -- came to visit him to pay their respects. Although Guthrie helped inspire the folk music revival of the late 1950s and 1960s, he was unable to enjoy it or benefit from it financially.

Since his death, Guthrie has become a cultural icon. Woody's friends Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger were his most effective promoters, ensuring that younger generations knew Guthrie's music. Many folksingers and rockers -- including his Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John McCutcheon, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, the Klezmatics, and Tom Morello -- have followed in Guthrie's political footsteps, recorded and interpreted his songs, and joined forces with activist movements.

At Nora Guthrie's initiative, British singer Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco explored the many unpublished Guthrie songs in his archives and set them to music, producing two Grammy-nominated albums, Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.

In 2012, the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum and the Guthrie Foundation and Archives sponsored "Woody at 100," a series of concerts, conferences and museum exhibits around the country to celebrate the life and music of the radical troubadour and songwriter, including a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A diverse group of artists and performers turned more of Guthrie's unpublished songs, poems, and journals into songs and spoken word tributes in the album, Note Of Hope - A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie. As part of the centenary celebration, Smithsonian Folkways released a 3-CD box set, also called Woody at 100, that included some previously unreleased recordings discovered by the Smithsonian Folkways label.

When Guthrie died in 1967, he was little-known by the general public, a cult figure among folkies and radicals. Today, his name and his songs are widely celebrated. Several of his songs (including "Bling Blang," "Riding in My Car," "Howdi Doo," "Mail Myself To You," "Happy Hanukah" and "This Land is Your Land") have been turned into children's books. His songs have been collected in a number of books and he is the subject of bio-pic film and several documentaries.

Since Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life appeared in 1980, a growing number of authors have examined the life and the legend, including Ed Cray (Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie), Will Kaufman (Woody Guthrie: American Radical), Robert Santelli (This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song), Ronald Cohen (Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs), and Nora Guthrie (My Name is New York: Ramblin' Around Woody Guthrie's Town).

Guthrie was posthumously inducted into the National Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2000 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council named the intersection of Fifth and Main streets, not far from Skid Row, where he once lived, "Woody Guthrie Square." His "Roll On Columbia" is now Washington State's official song and "Oklahoma Hills" is the official song of his native state.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

Share This Article