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The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie

1912 - 1967

A Most Merry and Illustrated Tribute

Woody Guthrie said he wrote over a thousand songs, and that's probably not far from the mark. Of course, not all of the tunes are classics by any means, and some are marginal at best. But everyone - that's everyone - knows at least one of Woody's songs. I mean, if you can't sing "This Land is Your Land", then turn in your copy of America, Why I Love Her.Woody Guthrie

What many people do not know is that this most patriotic of patriotic songs was written by an unabashed and always unrepentant communist. Yes, Woody Guthrie was a communist. Now today you get the euphemistologists saying that Woody was a "socialist", ignoring the fact that back in the years after the Russian Revolution the socialists and communists often went at it head to head (George Orwell, a socialist, hated communism). Others will say that well, Woody wasn't an actual member of CPUSA, and so he couldn't have been all that much of a real communist, and in Woody's day, communism was at least better than when the Russians had the Tsars ("Have a Tsar?" "No, thanks, I don't smoke."), and all that communist stuff was just an affectation of the early Twentieth Century American intellegensia (rant, rave snort).

Poppycock. Party membership notwithstanding, Woody considered himself a communist and was proud of it. Now lest people take these comments as criticism, Woody did believe in the fundamentals of the US Constitution: free speech, freedom of religion, right of assembly, and all the rest. But he also saw nothing wrong in holding that wealth should not be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few fat cats to the detriment of everyone else, and that a good government would be one that made sure this didn't happen. If this be communism, ladies and gentlemen, let us make the most of it.

Of course, like everyone else, Woody, and hence his politics, is not above criticism. Because he identified so strongly with the movement, he would inevitably turn a blind eye toward those pesky little embarrassments - the Gulag and the purge to name two - that made Soviet Russia not a great place to leave for if America you didn't love it. At the same time, America itself was not going through the prettiest of times either. After all, during the 1950's, there were sweet little affectations like McCarthyism, rising organized (and other) crime, and a system of legalized (and often deadly) racial discrimination that kept the spirit of slavery alive long after the statutory institution had been abolished. Even universal suffrage independent of race was not achieved in the United States until 1965 (and some have been trying to reverse this achievement and it looks like the may even succeed). So it really didn't matter what brand of poison you wantedto pick. There was plenty to go around.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma on July 14, 1912 to Charles Edward and Nora Belle Guthrie. The family was distinctly middle class, and Charlie, a notary and real estate agent, became one of Okemah's leading citizens. However, soon hard times fell on the family. Their house burned down and in a separate incident, Woody's sister Clara died when her dress caught fire. Later Charlie himself was severely burned in what looks like an accidental fire set by Nora. Nora was then hospitalized as "insane", and Charlie moved to Pampa, Texas to be closer to his relatives. Woody, age seventeen, soon followed.

Woody briefly attended high school in Pampa but soon began working at odd jobs. As was common in that area, much of the entertainment was musical. Radio and phonographs, while available, sounded tinny, and high quality music had to be live. Woody learned to play guitar, harmonica, and fiddle and was even part of the Pampa Chamber of Commerce Band.

Among Woody's friends was the Jennings family. Matt, about Woody's age, became a lifelong friend, and Woody began paying court to Matt's blonde haired sister Mary. Mary and Woody soon married and Woody, who had considerable artistic ability, began a sign painting business. While not actually providing affluence, it was a living - at least for a while. Jack Guthrie

Unfortunately, this was the middle of the Great Depression. That plus an innate restlessness prompted Woody to try his luck in California. It made a lot of sense actually. A number of of Woody's relatives and friends had fled what was even then called the "Dust Bowl", and if you went to the right area on the West Coast, you might find work. So leaving Mary and his kids in Pampa (actually a smart thing to do), Woody headed West.

Among Woody's California relatives was his cousin, Leon, also known as Jack or Oke. Jack divided his time doing construction work and singing professionally, and his ultimate goal was to be a full time country and western singer. The two cousins soon hooked up and began performing together. Jack did most of the actual vocal work and guitar playing. Woody's role was that of the proverbial sidekick, providing back up and comedy while performing novelty pieces and singing the occasional solo.

Jack later became a fairly big country and western star, and his biggest hit was "Oklahoma Hills". This caused some contention in the family since Jack was listed as the composer, and yet Woody said the song was actually his. There is reason to think that an early version was first performed by Woody, but it also has to be admitted that the cowboy motif was much more to Jack's taste than Woody's. What likely happened was Woody wrote the song but Jack modified it and added new lyrics, and so making the final song a joint composition. In the end, a more or less amicable agreement was reached where both Woody and Jack were given credit (and royalties).

But for the time being Jack and Woody were just one of a number of small-time cowboy singing groups in Los Angeles. They made what they could singing in bars and appearing as a promotional act for local businesses.

In an effort to generate some extra publicity, Jack convinced Frank Burke, the owner of a small radio station, KFVD, that he and Woody's act would be good in a mid-day slot. So when the pressures of having to raise a family forced Jack to go back to construction, Woody suddenly had a a show of his own. Originally he and Jack had not been paid, but the popularity of the show soon prompted Frank to offer Woody a contract which gave Woody enough of an income so Mary and the kids could come to California. Woody dropped the cowboy songs that Jack preferred and stuck mostly to traditional folk tunes. He also begin to sing some of his own songs.

Woody's combination of music, humor, and (as he called it) "cornpone philosophy" made the show such a hit that it eventually had three spots a day. But a good part of the radio show's popularity was also due to Woody's singing partner, Maxine Crissman, whose harmony helped make up for Woody's sometimes rough vocals. But after a year Woody left KFVD, partly due to his natural wanderlust, and partly because the strain of doing three shows a day was taking its toll on Maxine's health. Mary and the kids returned to Pampa, and Woody spent some time hitching around California. Alan Lomax

Of course, Woody didn't only sing on the radio. He also appeared at various functions which needed live entertainment. At one point, Ed Robbin, who had a political commentary show on KFVD, invited Woody to sing at a rally which, given Ed's political circle. included a number of unabashed and literally card-carrying communists. Woody was a hit and was called on to do several encores which included a number of his own Dust Bowl refugee ballads. So Woody, if not becoming a party member (but more on that below), quickly identified himself with the communists. He even began contributing a "Woody Sez" column to "The Daily Worker", the official paper of the American Communist Party.

All right, then. Was Woody a communist? Well, like Humpty Dumpty said in Through the Looking Glass, a word means what we want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less. If by communist you mean a card-carrying party member, then probably not. But one of his friends - who was a CC-CPUSA member - did say Woody was not only a party member but was actually disciplined for not soliciting enough new recruits. However, Woody's membership seems dubious. Joe Klein, Woody's first biographer, probably hit the mark closest when he said that if Woody had ever been a member, his tenure probably didn't last longer than the interval required for the first dues payment.

But from what Woody said during his life - notwithstanding his famous "I ain't a communist necessarily, but I've been in the red all my life" quote - it's hard to deny that Woody ever considered himself anything other than a communist. Earlier writers never seemed to have a problem with this, and even one early network producer who hired Woody - in an example of amazing courage - said it didn't matter if Woody was a communist. Mr. Guthrie's politics was, after all, something that was Woody's business and no one else's.

It's only relatively recently that people have begun to rewrite history and call Woody a "socialist", a word Woody himself used but infrequently (and even then you wonder if the modern editor isn't taking a bit of license with Woody's own prose). What's all the more amazing is that recasting history to fit political sensitivities is something that Americans were so critical of about the regimes of the former Soviet Union. Even more ironic is that many Americans who unabashedly associated themselves with the communist ideology - men like Woody and the great African American singer and actor Paul Robeson - had a stronger belief in the ideals of American freedom than did many of the superpatriots of the time like Joe McCarthy - and to be frank, than many of our chest thumping American - quote - "patriots" - unquote - we have today.

In short, Woody was ideologically a communist. But he did not believe in dictatorship or totalitarianism, nor he did worry over the technical details of communist theory that would ultimate produce the various schisms of the movement. Woody, then, was a communist of the heart, rather than the head. So it's no big deal. Besides, Woody was never much of a joiner in any case.

In California, the novelty of Woody as the dusty folk poet, began to wear off, and to be honest, his sometimes cantankerous behavior began to make it harder for him to find new gigs. But through his new connections in the political and entertainment fields, he met a young and rising actor named Will Geer (yes, the Will Geer who played the grandfather in "The Waltons" and whose wife of the time, Herta Ware, appeared in the 1985 movie "Cocoon"). Will soon landed a role in the Broadway adaptation of "Tobacco Road", and he suggested Woody come to New York. So in 1940, Woody found himself in the Big Apple.

One of the first things Woody did in New York was to write a song he called "God Blessed America for Me". He didn't record it for several years (and then only as a demo tape), although he did use it as a theme song for a radio show that lasted only three months. By then he had renamed it (with appropriate revisions) to "This Land Was Made For You and Me".

Although today people see "This Land" as a chest pounding patriotic anthem, when all verses are sung it comes off more as a critique of America, contrasting the country's natural wealth ("wheat fields waving") with its often squalid poverty. So nowadays to make the song palatable to members of the Bill Gates/Donald Trump Fan Club you have to cut out the two critical verses.

There was a high wall that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said: "Private Property",
But on the back side it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

One bright morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

Woody's big break came when he performed at a benefit concert for migrant workers a couple of months later. Alan Lomax, the director of the Archive for American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, heard Woody perform and invited him to record for the archives. Woody went down to Washington where he stayed at the house Alan and his wife, Elizabeth, shared with Nicholas Ray (later to direct "Rebel Without a Cause"). According to some accounts, he deliberately played the part of the rambling man, never taking off his boots, sleeping on the floor, and eating standing up over the sink.

Alan also made sure Woody appeared in a ground-breaking radio folk music program "Back Where I Come From". The script, co-written by Nicholas, was specifically centered around Woody's song, "So Long It's Been Good To Know You". The show was a major production, hosted by New Yorker critic Clifton Fadiman, and had a full and lush back-up orchestra to accompany Woody (which by today's folk standards sounds a bit silly). It featured a number of rising stars including a young Burl Ives, whose incredibly smooth rendering of "The Foggy Dew" was the type of singing that once prompted Woody to snort "Burl Ives sings like he was born in lace drawers."

People who are familiar with Woody only from the later recordings (where he often sings with out much emotion) will be surprised at how good Woody sounds on the show. Back Where I Come From" introduced Woody to a national audience, and for anyone else it would have been the beginning of a meteoritic rise to fame and fortune. Soon Woody landed both a recording contract and a job to host a big-time CBS radio program. Woody, quite literally with more money than he knew what to do with, brought Mary and the kids up north.

Unfortunately, Woody hated his show. Or more accurately he hated the restrictions the network put on him. Worse, to Woody's thinking, performing on network radio compromised his ability to speak his political mind (he even stopped writing his "Woody Sez" column). In a short time - a very short time, perhaps within a month - he soon loaded his family in their car and blew out of New York. Mary was dumfounded and knew this was the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Like many of Woody's actions, leaving New York was impulsive and emotional, and he hadn't decided where he was going. There had been plans to make a film about the Bonneville hydroelectric project on the Columbia River, and there had been talk of Woody appearing. So he headed toward Oregon and Washington.

The trouble was the film had never really gotten past the planning stage (or according to some, had been scrapped entirely). But when Woody showed up in a car crammed with personal effects, a wife, and three tow-headed kids, the head of the project went ahead and gave Woody a month's salary. Woody had no real duties so he spent his time writing songs, penning, the story goes, thirty-one songs in thirty-one days. One of the better compositions from that idyllic interlude was "Roll On, Columbia", which was later recorded by Country Joe MacDonald, who thankfully did not preface the song with his "Fish" cheer.Pete Seeger

Woody did appear in one film we know of. That was a 15 minute short filmed in 1947 To Hear Your Banjo Play. Woody first shows up about eight minutes into the film playing first with Butch Hawes (who later married Alan's sister, Bess) and then with Brownie Terry and Sonny McGhee(who both later appeared in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Fred Gwynne - ergo, "Herman Munster" - played Big Daddy). Although long out of print, copies of the film can be found on the internet.

Eventually Woody dropped Mary and the kids back in Pampa and returned to New York. There he rejoined the folk music scene, effectively abandoning his family. He found a lot of his old friends were still in the big city, including many soon to be folk and blues greats like Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and, of course, Pete Seeger. By mid-century, Woody had made numerous records, appeared regularly on radio and in concerts, and had an autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, printed by a major publisher. He was usually broke.

There's a number of things that surprise people when they learn about Woody. One thing in particular that causes some consternation is that although Woody is looked on as one of America's most prolific composers, he wrote virtually no original melodies. Instead, he would write new lyrics, but take the music from another song. The necessity of fitting the words to the tune would sometimes produce an altered melody which was for all intents and purposes original. So in some cases the old tune isn't really obvious. Woody's modus operandi is not, despite common misconceptions of how creative people work, all that unusual. Even some songs of Ravel, Schubert, and (gasp!) Glen Miller were written with themes akin to older tunes.

Also a lot of people hearing Woody for the first time are surprised to find he sounds neither a great singer nor a virtuoso guitar player. At times he comes off as barely adequate. Most of this, of course, is simply because Woody was not the greatest singer or guitar player and at times he was only barely adequate. Also many of his records were made when Woody was past his prime, and the quality of the records was never top flight in any case. "Dust Bowl Ballads" (produced by RCA Victor) is one of his better albums from a technical standpoint, and the musicianship is pretty good as well. But to hear Woody at his performing best, try to find a recording of "Back Where I Come From"; that and another radio show from 1947, "Hootenanny". He's terrific.

When reading about Woody's life up to this point, the question arises just how did Woody end up being part of the American mythology? His real life was far from being that of the simple folk balladeer who drifts into town, composes a song or two, and hops a freight taking him to broader horizons. He grew up in small towns, not on Dust Bowl ravaged farms, and virtually all of his adult life he lived in two of the largest metropolitan areas of America, Los Angeles and New York. He had three failed marriages, and to be frank, never had what you'd think of as a real job, not even as a performer. With the exception of some minor royalty payments and decreasing and sporadic gigs, he often lived off his wives' income. As a result, he and his families were often at (and sometimes below) what is now courteously called the "marginal income level".

As far as his music goes, Woody really gave us only one truly universal musical composition. That was "This Land". His other songs pretty much find favor mostly with folk music fans, and die-hard Woody aficionados. Many of what were at one time his more celebrated compositions - "Philadelphia Lawyer", "Union Maid", "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" - are rarely heard today (and the less said about Woody's "Jesus Christ" the better). "Oklahoma Hills" has had some popularity, but mostly on the country and western circuit. Even today few listeners hearing the song give much thought they are hearing a Woody Guthrie composition (in one interview, a resident of Woody's home town of Okemah expressed surprised that "Oklahoma Hills" was by Woody). Other songs sometimes thought of as being Woody's, "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and "Buffalo Skinners" for instance, are really traditional folks songs he adapted. Even his songs for children - in many ways his best compositions - have not really worked their way into the educational mainstream. Why, then, has Woody become part of the American myth?

Well, few legends can be built on just the facts, ma'am. You need mystery for a myth, and Woody's near total disappearance from the folk scene soon made him the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

From his mother, Woody had inherited the incurable and degenerative Huntington's disease (then called Huntington's "chorea" due to the victim's gradual loss of muscle control). His symptoms began to appear in the late 1940's causing him to be even more unpredictable and unreliable than before. Sometimes his behavior was frightening even to those who knew him well, and on rare occasions he could even be violent. By the early 1950's, less and less people wanted to have anything to do with him. (As an aside, the disease later presented some problems with the early Guthrie imitators since in crafting their performing persona to match Woody, they could easily mistake the tremors and slurred speech caused by the illness for typical Guthrie mannerisms.)

Woody himself was properly diagnosed only in 1952, and the course of the disease was rapid. By 1956 he was permanently hospitalized and no longer able to write or play the guitar. Bob Dylan

As the 60's rolled in, Woody had been (to use the words of Lee Hays) out of commission for a number of years. But on weekends Woody's family and friends would sometimes take him to hear folk music performers, either at the New Jersey home of Bob and Sidsel Gleason or in New York's Washington Square. So a number of the younger singers were able to meet Woody personally.

Without doubt the most successful of Woody's musical offspring was a young man named Robert Zimmerman. He had heard some of Woody's records, read Bound for Glory, and left his home state of Minnesota just to visit Woody in the hospital. For his part, Woody liked Robert's singing, but he wasn't sure if the kid could make it as a songwriter. Robert did, of course, and it's worth remembering that without Woody, we might have been forever deprived of the mellifluous and dulcet voice of Bob Dylan. Thanks a lot, Woody.

Woody died on October 3, 1967 at age 55. Although the major news networks reported his death, the memory of Woody himself had largely faded from America's memory. Grade school kids might have been singing "This Land", but virtually none of them even thought about the composer. So for a period stretching from the early 1950's to the mid-60's, if there were older people who wondered what happened to Woody Guthrie, a lot of the younger ones didn't know he ever existed.

Then in 1967, the year Woody died, his son, Arlo, released his first album, Alice's Restaurant. The title song was a funny, clever eighteen-minute talking blues about how Arlo's "criminal record" for littering ended up in him being declared an incorrigible unfit for military service. On the album liner notes, it mentioned Arlo was the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie, having to to add parenthetically that Woody wrote "This Land". Arlo Guthrie

To the surprise of everyone (probably even Arlo) the song was was a hit and in two years it was made into a motion picture directed by Arthur Penn, the movie titan who also cranked out a number of hits like The Left Handed Gun (with Paul Newman), The Miracle Worker (Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke), Bonnie and Clyde (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway), and Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman). Woody was mentioned a few times in the movie, and there was even a scene where Arlo and Pete Seeger (playing himself) visit Woody in the hospital.

With Arlo's emergence as a major performer and recording artist, Woody began to return to America's collective consciousness (although to this day more people know about Arlo than Woody). Starting at the mini-folk revival of the early 1970's you could walk into most record stores and find a "Woody Guthrie" bin. His own hometown of Okemah was originally a bit leery of the politics of their prodigal son, and for years the only memorial in town was a small marker inscribed "Woody Guthrie 1912 - 1967 Bound for Glory". But as the knowledge of Woody's politics faded (or at least was tactfully ignored), Okemah became the enthusiastic host of the yearly Woody Guthrie Festival. In 1999, the US Postal Service issued a Woody Guthrie commemorative stamp, and in 2001 "Oklahoma Hills" was adopted as the state folk tune. The "anthem", that is, the official state song, is still Roger and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"

Although record stores have pretty much gone the way of the transistor radio and typewriter, you can still buy virtually all of Woody's recordings - plus the inevitable "tribute" - online. There have been two full scale biographies, the first appearing in 1980 and a bonafide "academic" tome published in 2004. And of course Woody has even had the honor (if you want to call it that) of having a movie made about his life. It starred David Carradine (of "Kung Fu" and "Wild West Tech" fame) and had Woody's number two real life son, Joady Ben, in a bit part. It was generally well received, stretched the truth a bit, and was not a financial success - all of which would have surely pleased Woody.

 

References

Yes, there is a lot about Woody on the internet, but we'll start off with some books.

"Woody Guthrie: A Life", Joe Klein, (Knopf, 1980). The first real biography of Woody. Joe had access to Woody's papers and correspondence and was able to interview virtually everyone who knew Woody, including some people who knew him when he was a kid. Very readable.

"Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie" Ed Cray (W. W. Norton, 2004). A biography by a professor; ergo, it's the "academic" biography. and so the style is distinctly more formal than Joe's. The book covers much of the same ground as Joe's, although Professor Cray adds additional details and omits pseudonyms. True Woody fans will want to read both.

One glaring error. In a photograph of Woody and his family in Okemah, the lady standing in the back of Woody, his brother, George, and their dad is identified as Woody's sister, Clara. Actually the picture is of Nora, Woody's mom.

"Woody, Cisco, and Me", Jim Longhi, (University of Illinois Press, 1997). Woody was in the Merchant Marine in World War II and one of his friends was Jimmy Longhi. "Cisco" is Cisco Houston who was Woody's oft-time singing partner in the 1940's (Cisco by the way, had an excellent voice). This book has the episode of how Woody won the "gas warfare" battle with Cisco and Jimmy by loading up on the Merchant Marines ample supply of beans.

"Woody Guthrie and Me: An Intimate Reminiscence", Ed Robbin (Lancaster-Miller, 1979). Ed was a radio commentator on KFVD at the same time Woody had his shows. It was through Ed that Woody got started singing for political/entertainment rallies and so made the contact with Will Geer that in many ways was the key to Woody's ultimate fame.

 

Internet References

The two best sites are:

"The Official Woody Guthrie Web Site", http://www.woodyguthrie.org. As it says, this is the official web site of the Woody Guthrie archives.

http://www.woodyguthrie.com, by the way, is the URL for the Woody Guthrie Festival at Okemah.

"Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950", http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/wwghome.html. The official Library of Congress site which has the correspondence between Woody and the AAFS (a lot of the correspondence being with Alan Lomax). Most of the documents are the actual scans and so take a bit of memory. For easiest reading download the high resolution TIFF files. Most of the letters are from 1940 when Woody had most of his first contacts with Alan.

To Hear Your Banjo Play, Pete Seeger (host), Alan Lomax (writer and off screen voice), Creative Age Films, 1946. The date of the film is often cited as 1947, but if you look closely at the copyright date, it appears to be MCMXLVI, ergo, 1946.