America Celebrates Woody Guthrie at 100

In a wonderful accident of good timing, the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth (July 14) comes as the Occupy Wall Street movement is re-energizing the American Left.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In a wonderful accident of good timing, the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth (July 14) comes as the Occupy Wall Street movement is re-energizing the American Left. Guthrie viewed his music as part of the struggle for social justice. He wrote songs about families facing foreclosure by unscrupulous banks, migrant Mexican farm workers exploited by agribusiness, and politicians who turned a blind eye to the widespread suffering -- topics that unfortunately still resonate today. He also penned patriotic songs about America's promise and its natural beauty, and angry songs encouraging Americans to organize unions and protest against injustice.

This year, the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum and the Guthrie Foundation and Archives is sponsoring "Woody at 100," a series of concerts, conferences and museum exhibits to celebrate the life and music of the radical troubadour and songwriter, including a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on October 14. Guthrie's daughter Nora (who oversees the Foundation and Archives) hopes that the centennial celebration will introduce younger Americans not only to Guthrie's music but also to the tradition of linking songs to social protest. Tulsa's George Kaiser Family Foundation has purchased the comprehensive Woody Guthrie Archives and has opened a downtown space to display parts of the collection later this year.

Guthrie painted the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar. Many folksingers and rockers -- including his friend Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John McCutcheon, and Bruce Springsteen, and young artists like Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, and Tom Morello -- have followed in Guthrie's political footsteps, recorded his songs, and joined forces with activist movements.

Best known for "This Land Is Your Land," often considered America's alternative national anthem, Guthrie wrote more than 3,000 songs, but recorded only a few hundred of them. Although Guthrie helped inspire the folk music revival of the late 1950s and 1960s, he was unable to enjoy it or benefit from it financially, because he spent his last decade hospitalized by a debilitating illness, Huntington's chorea, before dying, at age 55, in 1967.

While Guthrie was hospitalized and after his death, Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot kept the Guthrie flame alive by recording his songs and promoting his legacy. A decade ago, Bragg and the rock group Wilco recorded two Grammy-nominated albums, Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, comprised of unpublished Guthrie songs they discovered in the Archives. This year, a diverse group of artists and performers, including Seeger, Browne, Morello, DiFranco, Studs Terkel, Lou Reed, Van Dyke Parks, Tony Trischka, and Nellie McKay, turned more of Guthrie's unpublished songs, poems, and journals into songs and spoken word tributes, in the newly-released album, Note Of Hope - A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie. Smithsonian Folkways has recently released a 3-CD box set, also called Woody at 100, that includes some previously unreleased recordings discovered by the Smithsonian Folkways label.

Although already the subject of three major biographies (by Joe Klein, Ed Cray, and Will Kaufman), several more books about Guthrie have come out this year, including Robert Santelli's This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song, Ronald Cohen's Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs, and Nora Guthrie's My Name is New York: Ramblin' Around Woody Guthrie's Town.

Most Americans know the chorus to Guthrie's most famous tune -- "This land is your land, this land is my land / From California, to the New York Island / From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters / This land was made for you and me" -- and perhaps even some of the verses about the "ribbon of highways," "sparkling sands," "diamond deserts," and "wheat fields waving." But few people know the two radical verses of the song, which are usually omitted from songbooks and recordings:

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said "No Trespassing"

But on the other side it didn't say nothing

That side was made for you and me.

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?

Guthrie penned the song in 1940, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression, as an answer to Irving Berlin's popular "God Bless America," which he thought failed to recognize that it was the "people" to whom America belonged. Guthrie celebrated America's natural beauty and bounty but criticized the country for its failure to share its riches. The lyrics reflect Guthrie's belief that patriotism and support for the underdog were interconnected.

Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 to a middle-class family. His father was a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician who did well during the oil boom, went bankrupt during the economic downturn, and struggled throughout the 1920s; the family often lived in shacks. Both his father and mother (who was eventually institutionalized for mental illness, later revealed to be Huntington's chorea) taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes.

In 1931 Guthrie moved to Pampa, Texas, and formed the Corn Cob Trio and then the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band, both singing cowboy songs. In 1935 he left for California looking for a way to support his wife and young children. He hitchhiked and rode freight trains, earning money painting signs, playing guitar, and singing in the streets and saloons along the way.

In Los Angeles, he landed a job on a local radio station singing cowboy songs as well as his own compositions. His audience -- including many former Texans and Oklahomans ("Okies") living in makeshift shelters in migrant camps -- grew, and Guthrie began adding political and social commentary to his songs. He talked and sang about corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen and praised the people who were fighting for the rights of migrant workers. Guthrie met Will Geer, an actor and left-wing activist, who introduced him to the local radical scene and traveled with him to support migrant workers' union-organizing drives.

Guthrie's songs of that period -- including "I Ain't Got No Home," "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Hard Travelin'," and "Tom Joad" (based on the hero of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about migrant workers) -- all reflect his growing anger and his mission to give a voice to the disenfranchised. In "Pretty Boy Floyd," Guthrie portrayed the outlaw as a Robin Hood character, contrasting him to the bankers and businessmen who exploit workers and foreclose on families' farms and homes:

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.

In 1939 Guthrie began writing a column, Woody Sez, for People's World, the Communist Party's West Coast paper, commenting on the news of the day. The next year, the party's New York paper, the Daily Worker, picked up the column.

Always restless, Guthrie moved to New York City in 1940 and was quickly embraced by radical organizations, artists, writers, musicians, and progressive intellectuals. He performed occasionally on radio and developed a loyal following. His admirers viewed him as an authentic proletarian, filled with homespun wisdom that energized his songs and columns. Much of Guthrie's image was the result of his own mythmaking and that of his promoters, particularly folklorist Alan Lomax.

Lomax recorded Guthrie in a series of conversations and songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., that contributed to this "folksy" impression. Lomax's efforts were part of an upsurge of popular left-wing culture -- fostered in part by New Deal programs like the federal theater and writers' projects -- that promoted folk and traditional songs as "people's" music.

In New York, Guthrie joined a growing interracial circle of radical musicians, actors, poets, writers, composers, dancers, and political activists. Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Bess Lomax Hawes, and Millard Lampell formed the Almanac Singers to perform songs about current events for unions, left-wing groups, and other causes. Guthrie sang on several Almanac singles and two albums, Deep Sea Chanties and Sod Buster Ballads, and often performed with the Almanacs, including in Detroit before 100,000 members of the United Auto Workers union.

Guthrie wrote some of the Almanac Singers' most popular songs, including "Union Maid." He had a gift for writing songs that told stories about current events and real people but were also timeless in terms of exploring issues of justice and fairness. He was also a brilliant satirist, writing songs that made fun of business leaders, politicians, Adolf Hitler, and such right-wing figures as aviator Charles Lindbergh and Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest."

In early 1941 the Almanacs performed songs opposing President Roosevelt's plans to enter World War II -- a view that Communists applauded but that alienated many of their admirers, including Eleanor Roosevelt. After Germany broke its truce with Russia and invaded the country in June of that year, the Almanacs changed their tune, writing patriotic songs that embraced the war effort and the United States' alliance with Russia to defeat Hitler. They were back in Mrs. Roosevelt's good graces.

When their songs were in sync with the New Deal, the Almanacs were courted by commercial promoters. They sang on national network radio, made records, and performed at night clubs, including the upscale Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. Guthrie had several regular radio gigs of his own. But the Almanac Singers' political views -- including Guthrie's -- were too controversial to sustain mainstream success. After Seeger joined the army and Guthrie signed up for the merchant marine (he was later drafted into the army, serving until 1945), the Almanacs broke up.

For a month in 1941 Guthrie was on the New Deal payroll, earning $266 to write songs for a documentary film about the Grand Coulee Dam, which brought electricity and jobs to Oregon and Washington. He moved to Portland, Oregon, and quickly wrote some of his most memorable songs, including "Roll on Columbia" (about the Columbia River), "Grand Coulee Dam," and "The Biggest Thing That Man Has Done."

While in the merchant marine and the army, Guthrie composed hundreds of anti-Hitler, pro-war, and other songs to inspire the troops, including "All You Fascists Bound to Lose," "Talking Merchant Marine," and "The Sinking of the Reuben James." In 1943 he published Bound for Glory, a semiautobiographical account of his Dust Bowl years that contributed to his reputation as a rambling troubadour. The postwar Red Scare had made it harder for Guthrie to find work. Many unions that once invited left-wing songsters to entertain their members had purged their radicals and no longer welcomed Guthrie.

After the war, Guthrie returned to New York and settled in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with his second wife, Marjorie, sons Arlo and Joady, and daughters Nora and Cathy Ann. While living in Coney Island, Guthrie composed and recorded several albums for children, including, Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Work Songs to Grow On. Several generations of parents have raised their kids with Guthrie's songs, many of which provided valuable lessons for living, including on such topics as friendship ("Don't You Push Me Down"), family ("Ship in the Sky"), neighborhoods ("Howdi Doo"), chores ("Pick It Up"), personal responsibility ("Cleano"), and family vacations ("Riding in My Car"). Guthrie was also connected with Brooklyn's Jewish community through his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, and wrote several songs with Jewish themes, including "Hanuka Dance," "The Many and The Few" and "Mermaid's Avenue," which have recently gained attention thanks to two albums by the Klezmatics.

In the late 1940s Guthrie's behavior became increasingly erratic, even violent. These were symptoms of Huntington's chorea, a rare hereditary degenerative disease that gradually robbed him of his health and ability to function physically. Doctors at first mistakenly treated him for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia. In 1954 he was admitted into the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, where he was finally properly diagnosed. For the last decade of his life, he was confined to hospitals, barely able to communicate. Many family, friends, and young fans came to visit him to pay their respects.

In 1988 Guthrie was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2000 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His "Roll On Columbia" is now Washington State's official song and "Oklahoma Hills" is the official song of his native state.

Now, thanks to the centennial celebration, millions of Americans will be paying their respects, and learning about, Guthrie's incredible life and legacy.

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His new book,The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20 Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, was published two weeks ago by Nation Books. This essay is drawn from the profile of Woody Guthrie in that book.

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community