Woody’s songs—like “Reuben James,” “Roll on Columbia,” “Union Maid” and “Pastures of Plenty”—have been some of the most recognizable and enduring contributions to American folk music in the twentieth century. To some admirers, he was the father of the American folk song in its modern form. 1 In addition to the help he received from the radio and the phonograph, Woody was fortunate to be a singer of folk songs at a time when the struggling blue collar workers, farmers and day laborers who had stoically persevered through the Great Depression gained a new respect and romanticized place in American culture.
In many ways, Woody’s story is the modern American man’s story. He lived and wrote through the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the early tensions of the Cold War. But Woody’s legacy also reveals how a man can become a myth. Woody’s legacy—his place in the popular historical imagination as America’s poet hobo—is one that has masked his moral and political deviations which complicated what has become an overly simplified “all-American” story.
In truth, Woody was an imperfect troubadour. Though a prolific and genius songwriter, his technical music skills were limited. He was a womanizer and absentee father. He had a legendary aversion to bathing and a penchant for borderline illegal erotic letter writing. Most damningly of all, he was a communist who sought to fundamentally challenge the American economic and political system at nearly every turn with his lyrics. That harmless anthem “This Land” originally carried far more cogent verses questioning the capitalist system that had relentlessly and unequally divided up the land Woody sang of so adoringly. A closer look at Woody Guthrie’s story, and the molding of his legacy, sheds light not only on a commonly mis-perceived American icon, but how historical memory can sometimes be subject to lapses of memory.
The Dust Bowl Troubadour: The Career of Woody Guthrie
In 1912, Woody was born into a middle-class Okemah, Oklahoma family that suffered a quick series of tragic catastrophes during his youth.
Woody’s father, Charlie Guthrie, had been a successful politician and real estate mogul who suffered a sudden fall from financial success after a series of bad investments. In a separate tragedy, Woody’s older sister Clara died of severe burns after lighting herself on fire during an argument with Woody’s mother, Nora, who herself descended into a mental illness later diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea (a hereditary disease that would later strike Woody). Before Nora was committed to a mental institution, she was rumored to have lit her husband on fire, who never fully recovered from his injuries. 3 Guthrie later talked about his childhood with folk musicologist Alan Lomax while recording his songs for the Library of Congress:
In 1929, Woody left Okemah and resettled with his father and brother in Pampa, Texas where an oil boom brought a temporary burst of activity. There, Woody began to grow musically, largely thanks to his Uncle Jeff, an accomplished fiddler who let Woody play alongside at county dances. He married young (the first of three marriages) but soon left Pampa for more adventuresome pastures. In 1937, he hitched rides in cars and on freight trains heading west, in the process learning songs, ballads and hymns from his fellow hobos. Not only did he gather a musical repertoire comprised of folk songs from every corner of the country, but he also digested politically radical ideas from the card-carrying Wobblies—members of an international industrial workers union—he met on the road.
Woody and Lefty Lou
Once in Los Angeles, Woody started singing with the daughter of a friend, Maxine Crissman, who later took the stage name Lefty Lou. The duo started a radio show on KFVD, a radio station owned by the politically progressive Frank Burke. For two hours a day, Woody and Lefty Lou regaled their radio audience with folk songs that reminded them of the ones their parents and grandparents had sung back on the farm. For many listeners, the show was a welcome respite, not only from the popular music and jazz that dominated the radio waves of the day, but of the city life that had proven so different than their old homes.
Woody saw firsthand the misery of the migrants, a sudden and urgent poverty that mirrored his father’s own sharp fall from success. Since the start of the Great Depression, about 50,000 migrants had entered California pursuing promises of jobs and wealth. 6 Lured by flyers promising ample work picking from the fruit orchards of California, many migrants found themselves competing for jobs with thousands of other hands. 7 Collectively deemed “Okies” (regardless of their actual state of origin) by disdainful natives of the state, migrants faced “No Okies” signs on stores as well as general disdain from Californians who feared the state was being overtaken by these traveling “hillbillies.” Although there were attempts to unionize for better wages and working conditions, the large agricultural companies were a politically powerful force in California, and sometimes issued paramilitary groups to discourage workers from unionizing.
Grapes of Wrath
Without steady income and prohibited by armed guards from eating from the rows of fruit, conditions in migrant camps deteriorated rapidly. John Steinbeck chronicled the migrant experience in Grapes of Wrath, an American classic which was later made into a film. Guthrie himself was asked to pen a song about the movie, a penned a 17-verse ballad on Tom Joad.
Communist Labor Movement
Woody saw disease and starvation in the migrant camps, but he also saw a burgeoning labor movement led by communists who toured the camps urging laborers to organize. The experience affected his music. He increasingly wrote from the perspective of the downtrodden, directing sharp commentary at the rich. Around this time, Guthrie wrote a song idolizing bank robber “Pretty Boy Floyd” as a modern day Robin Hood as well as a satirical waltz, named “the Jolly Banker,” ridiculing the callous indifference of the financial class that had foreclosed on so many of those migrants’ homes.
While visiting the camps, Woody repeatedly heard migrants singing, “This World is Not My Home,” a song derived from an upbeat Baptist hymn that had been made popular by the traditional folk music group the Carter Family. The song spoke of a better existence in the afterlife: “This world is not my home/I’m just a-passing through/My treasures and my hopes/Are all beyond the blue.”
The lyrics irritated Woody. As Guthrie biographer Joe Klein wrote, Woody “was beginning to understand that the effect of this song was to tell the migrants to wait, and be meek, and be rewarded in the next life” rather than fight for their own happiness and dignity on Earth. 10 Woody penned his own lyrics to the song, verses that spoke more to hard reality than to religion:
I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roaming around I’m just a wandering worker, I go from town to town And the police make it hard wherever I may go And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road, A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod, Rich man took my home and drove me from my door And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore Was a-farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor My crops I lay into the banker’s store My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor, And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
Woody delved deeper into politically progressive circles, eventually becoming a regular fixture at Communist rallies where he performed folk songs that echoed, in a simplistic but visceral way, the proletarianism of the party.
In 1940, Woody headed for New York, where he took up with a small but active community of left-wing folk singers. He joined a folk group called the Almanac Singers, consisting of Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. The Almanac Singers toured the nation, playing for union audiences and at labor strikes. The Singers tended to downplay their (impressive) book learning in favor of a working class image. As Klein describes, “The Almanac Singers…tended to mythologize themselves and each other shamelessly. They invented proletarian (especially rural) backgrounds for themselves, spoke with a southern lilt, and, as time went on, made quite a show of dressing like downtrodden workers. Few were aware that Pete Seeger had gone to Harvard.”
Peace During War
In line with communist ideology at the time, the Almanac Singers originally cautioned against U.S. involvement in World War II, singing peace songs critical of President Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist leanings. As the war escalated, however, and public opinion shifted decidedly away from isolationism, the Communist Party reacted by supporting the war cause. The Almanac Singers too changed their tune, writing patriotic songs to fuel the war effort, including the popular “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” Guthrie himself penned “Reuben James,” a ballad mourning the 115 U.S. sailors who had died when German forces sunk their American destroyer. Guthrie, who took to playing a guitar with a sticker on it that read “This machine kills fascists,” also wrote “Tear the Fascist Down”:
A Controversial Act
In 1942, CBS used “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” as the theme song for a six-part series on the ongoing war. Soon after this taste of big time success, however, newspapers began reporting on the group’s former activism for peace as well as its communist leanings. Further incoming offers for performances abruptly stopped; no one wanted an act so controversial.
As the war escalated, Woody served several tours with the merchant marines, at least partially to avoid the draft. Ironically, though, the army inducted Woody in May 1945, the very day Germany surrendered to the Allies. After a brief and uneventful peacetime stint in the military, the army released Woody from duty to return to his second wife in Brooklyn. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Woody noticeably deteriorated as the hereditary Huntington’s Chorea, now known as Huntington’s Disease, made itself shown. Woody spent the last decade of his life in hospitals in an increasingly incapacitated state, where he nevertheless inspired his many visiting fans, including a young Bob Dylan.
“I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I’ve been in the red all my life”
Woody Guthrie and Communism
Throughout his life, Woody’s relationship with communism was informal, at most. Accounts differ as to whether Woody was ever an actual card-carrying member of the party; while he once claimed to have been registered as early as 1936, others have said Woody briefly joined only to have been boosted, while still others maintained that the Party wouldn’t have this free thinker as a member. Whatever his actual relationship with the communist party, Woody’s leftist leanings were at least enough to spur an ongoing FBI file on the singer, which listed him as a communist who served as “Joe Stalin’s California mouthpiece.”
At the very least, communism inspired Woody’s music. Like the Red Songbook parodies, a collection of Communist satires set to known tunes, Woody used old hillbilly melodies to sing stories of violent policeman, greedy bankers and valiant union strikers. Starting in the late 1930s, the Communist Party saw political potential in folk music and turned to Woody and other folk artists as a way to reach the masses, popularizing communist themes through the proletariat’s own art form. The appropriation of folk music for communist political gain was part of a broader strategy (known as the Popular Front) that took form in the 1930s. Formerly a small, ineffective group largely comprised of immigrants, the Communist Party was now making an effort to Americanize itself, inject itself politically and culturally into America’s mainstream. And it was at least partially successful. As Klein has written, “It was probably the only moment in American history when being a communist seemed at all plausible to more than a tiny minority of people.”
Woody’s personal interpretation of communism was flexible. He had an infamous distaste for the long theoretical debates that occurred at so many official Party meetings, during which he often fell asleep until awoken to perform. He personally disdained materialism, often giving away money as soon as he made it, and in his autobiography Bound for Glory blamed much of the unhappiness of his home on the family’s relentless pursuit of nice things. After a youth full of short spastic intellectual pursuits of everything from psychology to fortune telling, he eventually found his purpose as a socially aware songwriter. As he wrote in Bound for Glory,
“There, on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about… at first it was funny songs of what all’s wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little bravery 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 thinking.”
Woody was critical of the vast inequality of wealth in American society, but at the same time had an unswerving faith that the American people would ultimately do the right thing (once telling a newspaper, “I can safely say that Americans will let you get awful hungry but they never quite let you starve.”) Woody’s outlook was as much fueled by disdain for the impersonal forces of Wall Street as it was a profound empathy for the struggling common man. Woody summarized his sociopolitical philosophy as “commonism.” In his words:
“Every single human being is looking for a better way…when there shall be no want among you, because you’ll own everything in Common. When the Rich will give their goods unto the poor. I believe in this Way…This is the Christian Way and it is already on a big part of the earth and it will come. To own everything in Common, That’s what the Bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old Commonism.”
The Mutable Legacy of “This Land is Your Land”
In the late 1930s, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” swept the country. But just as he had recoiled from the passive optimism of “This is Not My Home,” Woody thought something rang false about the song. Woody knew a much different America than Berlin, who remained a wealthy man even throughout the Depression. In 1940, shortly after moving to New York, Woody penned a response to “God Bless America,” with lyrics, which celebrated America without glossing over its imperfections or pretending that all in America were blessed equally.
But unlike Berlin, Woody used the song’s imagery to portray not just the grandeur but also the suffering of America. Two of the last three verses of the original song—protest verses which have been left out of the popularly sung version—read:
Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me A sign was painted said: Private Property But on the back side it didn’t say nothing— God blessed American for me. 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.
Woody didn’t touch the song for another few years, until 1944, when he started a weekly radio show for WNEW in New York. Woody used “This Land” as the theme song for the show. Though he left the two protest verses out of the song, he added another defiant verse:
Nobody living can ever stop me As I go walking my freedom highway Nobody living can make me turn back This land was made for you and me