Skip to main content

Feature

Woody Guthrie: A Hard Travelin’ Man

By Caroline Kim-Brown | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

"Any song that makes you think you're born to lose, bound to lose, no good to nobody, songs that run you down or poke fun at you because of your bad luck or hard travelin', I'm out to fight these songs to my very last breath of air, to my last drop of blood. I'm out to sing the songs that will prove to you that this is your world, no matter what color, what size you are or how you were built."

--Woody Guthrie

In late April 1940, Woody Guthrie told friend and fellow folksinger Pete Seeger that he needed a typewriter. At the time, Guthrie was working on an album of Dust Bowl songs for RCA, and he had an idea for a ballad. "And when we woke up in the morning," said Seeger, "there was Woody curled up under the table with the finished song on the table."

The song "Tom Joad" accomplished a remarkable feat by summing up The Grapes of Wrath in six minutes of music. Steinbeck later grumbled, "in seventeen verses he got the entire story of a thing that took me two years to write."

To say Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was prolific is an understatement. He composed more than a thousand songs and modified countless others, including "Pastures of Plenty," "Deportees," "The Union Maid," "The Sinking of the Reuben James," "So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh," and "Oklahoma Hills." He was one of the best chroniclers of American life, writing songs about the Depression, the Dust Bowl years, the heyday of union organizing, and World War II. Buttoday he is best known for having written an unofficial national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land," a deceptively simple song familiar to nearly every American.

Though his songs seem simple, Guthrie was not. Hillbilly and intellectual, songwriter and artist, conflicted father and husband, Guthrie was a complex man few people knew well.

Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home, an American Masters film by Peter Frumkin, examines Guthrie's life, music, and ongoing influence on generations of musicians from the Weavers to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bragg. It airs in July.

According to Frumkin, Guthrie's life and legacy had never been fully examined in film before. "It's a very powerful story," he says, "and a very cinematic story. It's a great story to tell on film."

The story of Woody Guthrie begins in 1912 in Okemah, Ohio, where he was the third of five children born to Nora and Charley Guthrie. For a short while, the Guthries were solidly middle class. Then World War I ended and a recession followed. Charley Guthrie's business as a land speculator failed. "I'm the only man in this world that's lost a farm a day for thirty days," he grieved.

Other tragedies befell the family. Daughter Clara died when her dress caught fire. Then there was Nora Guthrie's increasingly strange behavior. "She would be all right for a while and treat us kids as good as any mother," said Guthrie, "and all at once it would start in--something bad and awful--something would come over her, and it come by slow degrees. Her face would twitch and her lips would snarl and her teeth would show."

In 1927, Guthrie's mother threw kerosene on his sleeping father, badly burning him. She was committed to Central State Hospital for the Insane, where she was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a hereditary degenerative muscle disease that causes mood and personality changes.

The breakup of the Guthrie family when Woody was fifteen ended his childhood. He spent the next several years living with various families in Okemah or hitchhiking back and forth to Pampa, Texas, where his father was recuperating.

Guthrie eventually moved to Pampa to be with his father. He dropped out of high school and spent his days reading through the town library and teaching himself to draw. While working an occasional job as a soda jerk in a drugstore, he came across a beat-up guitar. "I grabbed up this guitar," Guthrie said, "and I thought it sounded awfully pretty. And finally I learnt a few little old songs and kind of just drifted into it."

"The music was either completely self-taught," says Frumkin, "or learned playing with other people."

With two friends, Guthrie formed a band called the Corncob Trio. "Between the songs, Woody was the one who talked and joked and danced," says his daughter Nora Guthrie in the film. "He was the little clown on stage."

In 1933, Guthrie married Mary Jennings, the sister of a bandmate. With no work to be found in Pampa, Guthrie often left his young wife and took to the road without much thought to where he would end up. Once he traveled to Kilgore, Texas, to visit the Moores, a family he knew from Okemah. Penniless, Guthrie found a job working at a grocery and feed store. Two weeks later, walking back to the Moores' house with his first paycheck, he encountered an old man who was broke, out of work, and had a sick wife. Guthrie turned over his entire paycheck to the man and told the Moores, "I figured that old fellow needed it worse than I did."

As Guthrie traveled, he met many people like the old man in Kilgore. They were desperately poor and hungry for work. "It was a very innate, gut thing that he felt like people deserved justice," says Frumkin. "He wanted to fight for those people."

A terrible drought compounded the misery of the Depression. In April 1935, on a day that would later be known as Black Easter, a dust storm descended on Pampa, so enormous that it blocked out the sun. "We set there in a little old room," said Guthrie, "and it was just so dark that you couldn't see your hand before your face."

Guthrie wrote about the storm in "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh."

The churches was jammed and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' took up collection, Sayin'
So long, it's been good to know yuh. . .
This dusty old dust is a gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.

It was a sentiment shared by many Americans. By 1935, more than 200,000 people had left their farms in search of better prospects. In 1937, Guthrie left Pampa and set out for California.

"I looked into the lost and hungry faces of several hundred thousand Okies, Arkies, Texies, Mexies, Chinees, Japees, Dixies, and even a lot of New Yorkies," Guthrie said, "and I got so interested in the art and science of Migratin' that I majored in it--a school so big, you can't even get out of it." Whenever he came into contact with Dust Bowl migrants, he shared old time blues and ballads. He passed along the songs he knew and picked up ones he'd never heard before. But he also began to add his own stamp to these traditional songs.

Like the other migrants, once Guthrie arrived in California, he found it an unwelcoming place. "They tried to turn a lot of us back," he said. "The hobos, the boys that was riding the freight trains and hitchhiking down the road, that didn't have any money in their pockets." Police either turned them back at the border or jailed them as trespassers. Writing with his customary sense of humor, he turned these experiences into a song, "Do Re Mi."

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.

Guthrie's big break came when he landed a radio show on KFVD in Los Angeles with singer Maxine Crissman, a fellow transplant. They performed traditional country songs, hymns, and Guthrie's own works. Different from the cowboy singers popular on the airwaves at the time, the show was a big hit with the Okies, Arkies, and Texicans who had emigrated to California. The songs were a vivid reminder of home.

The Dust Bowl refugees were Guthrie's first major audience and Guthrie understood them intimately because he was one of them. Although he had already begun writing songs in Pampa, now he wrote with greater purpose, to give voice to a people who had been made to feel helpless.

"There is probably a fifteen-year period or so that was among the country's worst times, during the Depression and World War II," says Frumkin. "He commented on that tough period and gave advice about how to live and what to do. He thought very hard about who the country was for and what made the country great."

By 1940, ten years into the Depression, many were skeptical of the American dream. At the time, "God Bless America" was the most popular song on the radio. Guthrie found the song too elevated; he believed the country was made for and by the simple people who lived in it.

As Guthrie journeyed from California to New York, he was compelled to write "This Land Is Your Land." In California, he had written for a newspaper about the living conditions of Dust Bowl refugees, and he had been shocked by what he had seen. "If people had set and told me that there was hundreds and thousands of families living around under railroad bridges, in the old cardboard houses, and old orange crates that they'd been able to tear up and get boards out of, I wouldn't believe it," he said.

The experience politicized Guthrie and he began singing at Communist rallies. Though he never became a party member, his relationship with the party lost him paying work, so he had nothing to lose by going to New York.

In March 1940, Guthrie appeared at a benefit for California farm workers. In the documentary, Seeger recounts the event: "The Grapes of Wrath concert took place at midnight. Burl Ives was in it. Leadbelly. Josh White. The Golden Gate Quartet. But the hit of the evening was this little curly-headed guy with a cowboy hat on the back of his head and a pair of cowboy boots on, and he'd tell humorous stories and then sing a song."

Guthrie was an instant sensation. The sophisticated New York audience had never seen anyone like Woody Guthrie before. While they had learned folk songs from recordings and songbooks, Guthrie was the real thing-an authentic American voice who was giving them traditional songs he had picked up wandering the country.

"People were looking for something that they saw as authentically and truly American," says Frumkin, explaining why Guthrie consciously played up his rural background. "A hundred years before, America had really been agrarian. People looked to the country for what they thought of as America's roots, and Woody Guthrie tapped into that feeling and played on that."

The Guthrie persona was conscious, according to Ed Cray, Guthrie biographer and journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "Though he played the rube who just fell off the turnip truck, the fact is he was a very sophisticated man who played a role and offered a public persona of this rube-like character who told droll stories and in the end topped whatever the slick Yankee was trying to sell him."

Folklorist Alan Lomax, who was in the audience at the Grapes of Wrath benefit, was so taken with Guthrie that he invited him to the Library of Congress to record his songs. As an introduction to the recordings, Lomax said, "He hasn't sat in a warm house or a warm office. . . . He's gone into the world and he's looked at the faces of hungry men and women. He's been in hobo jungles. He's performed on picket lines. He's sung his way through every bar and saloon between Oklahoma and California."

Initially, Guthrie was financially successful in New York, appearing on several radio shows, including one on CBS that paid him $150 a week. But before long, Guthrie quarreled with the show's sponsors and quit. "They wanted him to sing some songs he thought stupid, and he wanted to sing some songs they did not want sung on the air," says Seeger. "He felt there was a great tendency once you got working for money to do what money wanted you to do and not what the truth wanted you to do."

The quest for truth and a huge creative energy sometimes caused Guthrie to work at a breakneck pace. He was known to record seventy or eighty songs in a day, draw hundreds of pictures over a weekend, and write compulsively. When he was hired by Bonneville Power Authority, in thirty days he wrote twenty-six songs about the construction of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River.

"The Columbia River songs are like the Dust Bowl ballads," says Jeff Place, archivist at the Smithsonian Folklife Archives, who appears in the film. "They're very evocative. The whole image of the Pacific Northwest and the trees and the mountains and the water and the dams and everything, it's all just in there."

Place says Guthrie "was an incredible commentator on the times he lived in. He was able to sit there from his perch on the side and comment on what was going on. He wasn't afraid to change. He saw life as a learning experience."

One of those learning experiences came when he was in the Merchant Marine during World War II. Guthrie was on a transport ship carrying men and supplies when it was attacked by German U-boats. "Woody pulls out his guitar, and he says 'I think the boys below could use a little entertainment,'" notes Jim Longhi, a friend of Guthrie's who appears in the documentary. Longhi was frightened but picked up his guitar and followed.

"And Woody takes out his guitar, plink, plink. The GIs stopped with their 'Hail Mary,' and Woody says 'I got a little tune for you. I'd like you to sing along. It's called 'The Sinking of the Reuben James.'' Oh, Jesus. Everybody roared!" The Reuben James was a destroyer that had been sunk in the North Atlantic earlier in the war.

When Guthrie and the men stopped singing, they heard more music. Guthrie asked where it came from and was told that it was the black seamen singing in their segregated quarters. "Woody comes in and they stop singing," says Longhi. "And the sergeant said, 'Excuse me, fellows, but you're in the wrong place.' And Woody says, 'With music like that, that's the right place.'" When a white colonel insisted Guthrie move back to the white quarters, he refused to come without the black seamen. He prevailed, and they all sang together.

According to Cray, Guthrie could not ignore injustice when he encountered it; he saw the possibility of a better world. Perhaps this stemmed from his difficult childhood. "He was looking for so much that would be denied him," Cray says. "He was looking for security, a fair deal for the Okies, Arkies, and Texicans who would come to California and then live in abject poverty in the Central Valley. He was looking for a square deal; he was looking for a place where there was no racial conflict or discrimination."

Before Guthrie entered the Merchant Marine, he had fallen in love with Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham's company. Though they were both married to other people, they began an affair that produced a daughter, Cathy Ann. Although his relationship with Marjorie was already in trouble by the time they eventually married after he returned from the war, Cathy Ann was a joy to Guthrie and inspired him to write dozens of children's songs. Then tragedy struck again in 1947 when four-year-old Cathy Ann died after her bed caught fire. "Something went out for Woody," says Cray. "He would never, ever be the same."

The rest of Guthrie's life was a slow decline. In the late 1940s, his biggest fear came true: He was diagnosed with Huntington's disease. Even before his diagnosis, he had begun to exhibit his mother's symptoms--fits of rage, loss of motor function that led people to assume he was drunk, swift mood changes that frightened his wife and children. In September 1954, he committed himself into Brooklyn State Hospital. For the next thirteen years, until his death in 1967, Guthrie slowly lost all muscle function until he could only communicate by blinking his eyes.

"It was Shakespearean," says biographer Joe Klein. "It was a mythic sort of life, that you'd have a guy who experienced this tremendous burst of creativity and then went into this slow decline, where someone who tried to put every last thing in his life into words could no longer express himself at all."

But before Guthrie died, young musicians, who were part of the sixties folk revival, began appearing in his hospital room, including a young Bob Dylan. Thanks to Seeger, who was seminal in exposing Guthrie's music to wider audiences, Guthrie's music continues to be recorded today by many musicians ranging from U2 to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to punk bands and rap artists.

"These songs will always remain rallying points for generation after generation after generation," says Bruce Springsteen. "Some people are going to rap them. Some people are going to thrash them out, however they're done. But people are going to return to them and find something in them. The music is at the core of what it means to be an American, and as long as there are Americans out there, somebody is going to be singing that stuff. That's the way it ought to be."

Caroline Kim-Brown is a writer in Oakland, California.

The Center for Independent Documentary received $570,000 from NEH to make Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home. It airs on PBS on July 12, 2006.