Woody Guthrie. Resonant Voice for the Downtrodden: Woolly-Eyed Lefty

Curious things were afoot in Greenwich Village, New York City around the year 1960. Droves of earnest denim-clad youths could be observed traversing the streets, all affecting the same hunched posture and shuffling gait. From every clenched jaw a king-size sprouted and (curiouser and curiouser) each throat emitted the same sporadic dry cough. One such poseur, a Minnesotan balladeer, Robert Zimmerman, would presently win universal acclaim as Bob Dylan.

Curiously too, the template for all those cardboard cut-outs also happened to be in the vicinity. Just across the Hudson River, those five years past, he had languished in New Jersey’s Greystone State Institute. His name was Woody Guthrie.

As writer, broadcaster, political activist and composer of some one thousand songs, Guthrie had been famous long before the birth of any of his young impersonators although this had since faded and, anyway, was always heavily laced with both controversy and notoriety. Why then was an ailing, ageing figure suddenly the focus of such adulation that the very hackings of his tobacco-addled bronchial tubings were deemed worthy of reproduction?

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 into a tragedy-prone family in Omaha, Oklahoma, being named in honour of the Democratic contender and President-to-be. Guthrie senior was an opportunistic businessman and Ku Klux Klan member whose racist views his son ingested and held well into adulthood. Mother, an unstable woman, was destined to die in the “insane asylum” from the hereditary condition then known as Huntington’s Chorea. In her more lucid moments however, she bequeathed Woody her rich musical heritage. She sang to him ballads of farmers, of sailors, of the humble triumphs and sorrows of ordinary people; an art-form that decades later, would find itself neatly sanitised, packaged, and marketed as “folk” music. At conception, unknowingly, she had also bequeathed him the Huntington’s genes.

Inevitably, this upbringing left its mark and young Guthrie developed into a decidedly maverick adult; as erratic in his business affairs as he was neglectful of his several wives, his numerous children, his personal presentation and hygiene. He developed also an enduring, and endearing, aversion to money, observing that “getting it turned people into animals and losing it drove them crazy”. Money to him was only ever a means of satisfying immediate requirements; any surplus being promptly squandered. At the height of his fame he would spurn lucrative contracts with the same panache that had seen his younger self regularly bestow entire evenings’ busking tips upon any convenient vagrant whose needs he perceived to exceed his own.

The final disintegration of the family unit saw a teenage Guthrie embark on an itinerant life, hitching rides and hopping freight trains across America, using his musical skills to access life’s basic necessities. He dossed in railway boxcars, under bridges, in hobo encampments, all the while adding to his repertoire. This would later constitute much of the romantic “Hard Travellin’” Guthrie legend but in reality it was a precarious existence, with regular harassment from the authorities; the next meal or bed a constant preoccupation.

There were an estimated 200,000 drifters and migratory workers during the 1920s, a figure which increased drastically in the 1930s as first the effects of the Great Depression then the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, bit deeper. This latter calamity, so graphically portrayed in Steinbeck’s magnificent novel, The Grapes of Wrath, saw entire communities forced off the barren land and on to the highways.  Guthrie was both moved by their plight and angered by the hostility shown towards them; the taunt “Okie” so widely used that it swiftly became the generic term for all “poor-white” destitutes.

Round the hobo campfires, Guthrie encountered grizzled, broken men; erstwhile members of the Industrial Workers of the World, muttering about there being a class struggle within society between the “rich” capitalists and the “poor” workers. In the finest of  leftist traditions, the IWW had been a chaotic outfit with little idea of what actually constituted socialism, nor indeed how it might be established; violent strike action and sabotage being foremost amongst its strategies. Its nickname, “Wobblies” was indeed apt.

The propaganda potential of both music and humour was however, recognised and its Little Red Songbook, largely parodies of Salvationist hymns, contained such gems as “The Pious Itinerant (Hallelujah I’m a Bum)” and “In the Sweet By-and-By” with its irreverent promise of “pie in the sky when you die”.

If nothing else, the IWW provided Guthrie with a simplistic political consciousness beyond which he never materially developed. More significantly, it lent a focus to his growing anger and taking his cue from the songbook, began creating his own material. In an anthology, “Dust Bowl Ballads”, he berated the “Vigilante Man” who would “shoot his brothers and sisters down”, lampooned the bungling incompetence of “these here politicians” in “Dust Bowl Blues” and mocked the preacher who, having first pocketed the collection, abandoned his flock with a “So Long it’s Been Good to Know Ya”.

Settling down briefly around 1937, Guthrie worked with the radical Los Angeles radio station KFVD. Here his racism underwent transformation; a Negro listener labelling him “unintelligent” for performing his “Nigger Blues” over the airwaves. Guthrie had used the term casually since childhood and was mortified. He apologised unreservedly, expunging the disgusting word forthwith from his vocabulary – although the “Japs” and “Wops” did continue to catch it in the neck for some time to come.

Back on his travels, it seemed to his open, if blinkered eyes that those striving hardest to assist the Okie refugees were “communists”. The American Communist Party had been founded in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution by an enclave of native radicals, Wobblies and immigrant Europeans, all mistakenly identifying it as somehow connected with the establishment of socialism – the reality being that it was simply one more chapter in the global triumph of capitalism over feudalism, taking in this instance, the form of state capitalism.

Routinely persecuted by a nervous government, it endured as a zealous, paranoid sect, but as the “Roaring Twenties” gave way to the “Hungry Thirties” following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, it effected some popular headway by depicting the apparent success of Stalin’s “planned” Soviet economy, with unemployment (officially at least) non-existent.

Then, following the Nazi triumph in Germany and the growth of Fascism elsewhere, the 1935 World Congress of the Communist International urged member parties to forgo their “ideological purity” and unite with other leftists in a Popular Front against this menace. Accordingly, the Party began to “Americanize”, becoming active, indeed dominant, in the labour union movement and supporting the 1936 election of “progressive” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This then was the organisation that Guthrie embraced. Whilst never adopting actual membership, he sang at party rallies and contributed a rather folksy column, “Woody Sez”, to its journal, Peoples’ World. “I ain’t a communist necessarily,” he quipped, “but I’ve been in the red all my life.”

The Hitler/Stalin non-aggression treaty of August 1939 which caused such heartache for the Party faithful (and headache for its leadership), troubled Guthrie not the slightest. With the Popular Front now summarily dispatched, he blithely swallowed the spluttered explanation that Russia was simply pro-peace; not pro-Fascist. It was Roosevelt, instantly transmogrified from hero to villain, who was trying to drag America into conflict on behalf of British imperialism. “Pact sets peace example”, proclaimed the Peoples’ World. 

And when the “peace-loving” Red Army invaded Eastern Poland shortly afterwards, why, they were merely liberating the place. “Stalin,” sang Guthrie, “stepped in and gave the land back to the farmers.”

The German attack on Russia in June 1941 meant about-turn yet again and with America’s entry into the war six months later following Pearl Harbour, the Party became in a trice the most fervently patriotic of institutions; union organisation and strike action now subordinated to the overriding imperative for military success. “Sure,” reasoned our Woody, “the Communists change policy, but so do the Democrats and Republicans.”

Victory secured, the western alliance quickly foundered. Stalin denounced his former bedfellows as worse than Hitler, Churchill responded with his “Iron Curtain” speech and the Cold War was underway.

In an era of low unemployment and rising wages, the American left found itself in decline. Labour unions were now established in society, requiring pension fund managers rather than militants and among the newly-consumerist working class, a fear prevailed that its relative prosperity might be in jeopardy from leftism. Guthrie too was in decline, succumbing by degrees to the lingering horrors of Huntington’s Disease, dying eventually in 1967.

By the late 1950s, further societal change was underway. Following Eisenhower’s 1954 election, the “Great Red Scare” was evaporating and in the emerging teenage generation, an intellectual curiosity and idealism could be discerned, transcending the parochialism and acquisitiveness of its War-era parents. Political activism, particularly in the Civil Rights Movement reawakened and nonconformity of sorts, became acceptable.

Guthrie had somehow filtered into the “radical psyche” as a free-wandering spirit representing all things open, honest and unmaterialistic. His songs began to be listened to.

Tin Pan Alley too, had its role to play and profits to consolidate. Rock ’ n’ Roll had arrived some years earlier and had proved anathema to “White Middle America”, a subversive presence inciting youthful rebelliousness and promiscuity; the term itself Negro slang for sexual intercourse. For the first time, black musicians, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and others were accessing mass white audiences. Could the unthinkable happen and integration ensue?

Clean-cut Caucasians – the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary etc, – churning out “folk” songs seemed a much safer option and from record stores everywhere wafted bowdlerised versions of “Oklahoma Hills” and “This Land is Your Land” – to the joyful ringing accompaniment of the cash register.

Woody Guthrie was never a socialist in any scientific sense of the word. He was however, manifestly “socialistic” in his whole outlook on life. “This land,” he sang “was made for you and me” and the fruits of his “Pastures of Plenty”, rightfully everyone’s.

He once wrote, “The worst thing that can happen is to cut loose from people and the best thing is to vaccinate yourself right into their blood….We have to get together and work and fight for everybody.” Hardly apocalyptic, but nonetheless sentiments with which socialists will heartily agree.


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