Since April is National Poetry Month, I decided to write a post about Woody Guthrie—a songwriter and a poet of the people.
2012 is the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Born on July 12, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie lived through the Great Depression and the Great Dust Storm period that afflicted this country. Like many “dustbowl refugees”—desperate farmers and unemployed workers—Woody “hit Route 66” and headed west in search of work in hopes of finding a way to support his family.
“Moneyless and hungry, Woody hitchhiked, rode freight trains, and even walked his way to California, taking whatever small jobs he could. In exchange for bed and board, Woody painted signs and played guitar and sang in saloons along the way, developing a love for traveling the open road—a lifelong habit he would often repeat.” (Woody Guthrie Biography)
Californians were not too happy about the massive migration of “Okie” outsiders to their state. Along with other outsiders, Woody “experienced intense scorn, hatred, and even physical antagonism from resident Californians.” Woody eventually got a job on radio singing traditional songs—as well as some of his own original songs.
From Woody Guthrie’s biography:
The local radio airwaves also provided Woody a forum from which he developed his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism. On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s agricultural communities, Woody proved himself a hard-hitting advocate for truth, fairness, and justice.
Woody strongly identified with his audience and adapted to an “outsider” status, along with them. This role would become an essential element of his political and social positioning, gradually working its way into his songwriting; “I Ain’t Got No Home”, “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”, “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, “Tom Joad” and “Hard Travelin’”; all reflect his desire to give voice to those who had been disenfranchised.
In an article published in the Colorado Springs Independent in March, Jim Hightower asks the question: “Where’s Woody when we need him?” Hightower wrote, “…in these hard times of tinkle-down economics, we sure could use some of his hard-hitting musical stories and inspired lyrical populism.” He wrote that Guthrie wouldn’t even need “to write any new material” because today—just as in the songwriter’s day, “our Wall Street banksters are getting rich, even as the victims of their narcissistic greed get pink slips and eviction notices.” Hightower includes an excerpt from Guthrie’s song “Pretty Boy Floyd” to prove his point that the songwriter wouldn’t need to write new lyrics:
“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.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”
In their essay “Is This Land Made for You and Me?” (January 5, 2012), Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wrote the following:
Woody saw the ravages of the Dust Bowl and the Depression firsthand; his own family came unraveled in the worst hard times. And he wrote tough yet lyrical stories about the men and women who struggled to survive, enduring the indignity of living life at the bone, with nothing to eat and no place to sleep. He traveled from town to town, hitchhiking and stealing rides in railroad boxcars, singing his songs for spare change or a ham sandwich. What professional success he had during his own lifetime, singing in concerts and on the radio, was often undone by politics and the restless urge to keep moving on. “So long, it’s been good to know you,” he sang, and off he would go…
Woody’s most famous song “This Land Is Your Land” extols the beauty of our country—its stanzas sing the praises of America’s golden valley…its diamond deserts…its sparkling sands. Yet, there is one stanza of the song that we rarely hear sung:
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?
It seems the more times change the more they stay the same…the more they appear to repeat past times when things were tough for millions of Americans.
Moyers and Winship:
In an era of gross inequality there’s both irony and relevance in Woody Guthrie’s song. That “ribbon of highway” he made famous? It’s faded and fraying in disrepair, the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, once one of our glories, now a shambles because fixing them would require spending money, raising taxes, and pulling together.
This land is mostly owned not by you and me but by the winner-take-all super rich who have bought up open spaces, built mega-mansions, turned vast acres into private vistas, and distanced themselves as far as they can from the common lot of working people – the people Woody wrote and sang about…
What he wrote and sang about caused the oil potentates and preachers who ran Oklahoma to consider him radical and disreputable. For many years he was the state’s prodigal son, but times change, and that’s the big news. Woody Guthrie has been rediscovered, even though Oklahoma’s more conservative than ever – one of the reddest of our red states with a governor who’s a favorite of the Tea Party.
The George Kaiser Family Foundation has plans to honor Guthrie. The foundation has purchased the songwriter’s archives and will house the collection in a center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The foundation plans to open The Woody Guthrie Center by the end of the year. The center will make Guthrie’s manuscripts, letters, and journals available to scholars and visitors “from all over the world.”
The New York Times reported that the archives contain “an astonishing creative output”—including:
…scores of notebooks and diaries written in his precise handwriting and illustrated with cartoons, watercolors, stickers and clippings; hundreds of letters; 581 artworks; a half-dozen scrapbooks; unpublished short stories, novels and essays; as well as the lyrics to the 3,000 or more songs he scribbled on scraps of paper, gift wrap, napkins, paper bags and place mats. Much of the material has rarely or never been seen in public, including the lyrics to most of the songs. Guthrie could not write musical notation, so the melodies have been lost.
There will be a yearlong celebration of Guthrie and his work. Events are planned for many different venues across the United States and in other countries. Check the Woody Guthrie Centennial Site for information.
Conversation: Woody Guthrie at 100 : Jeffery Brown talks with Nora Guthrie (PBS)
We just need to remember Woody Guthrie (Colorado Springs Independent)
Is This Land Made for You and Me? (On Democracy/Bill Moyers)
Lessons on Democracy from Woody Guthrie (Bill Moyers)
Bound for Local Glory at Last (New York Times)