“Just What In The Hell Has Gone Wrong Here Anyhow?” Woody Guthrie and the American Dream


We seem to be in the midst of a Woody Guthrie boom. Its crest was the 1976 film Bound for Glory , which attracted considerable critical attention before it went out into shopping center cinemas across the land. Two collections of Guthrie’s fugitive writings are now in circulation, and there is a handsome, spanking new Woody Guthrie Songbook , as well as two mass market editions of the autobiographical work on which the film was based and the first publication of a work he wrote more than thirty years ago, Seeds of Man . Record bins are amply stocked with “—— Sings Woody Guthrie,” and with reissues of his own recordings long unavailable.

The subject of this boom was a tough, troubled, weedy little man with survival instincts as strong as the iron grass and mesquite of his native Oklahoma and Texas. He was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 into what passed then and there for middle-class circumstances, but he grew up in an atmosphere of familial misfortune and disintegration tallying that of the region as a whole. In his teens he followed his father down to the high plains of Texas and there began a career as a wandering minstrel that took him through most of the states of the Union, hundreds of bars, halls, recording studios, street corners, hobo camps, wartime troopships. As Guthrie summarized it in the early forties:

“[I] sung along the boweries of fortytwo states; Reno Avenue in Oklahoma City, Lower Pike Street in Seattle, the jury table in Santa Fe; the Hooversvilles on the flea-bit rims of your city’s garbage dump. I sung in the camps called ‘Little Mexico,’ on the dirty edge of California’s green pastures. I sung on the gravel barges of the East Coast and along New York’s Bowery watching the cops chase the bay-rum drinkers. I curved along the bend of the Gulf of Mexico and sung with the tars and salts in Port Arthur, the oilers and greasers in Texas City, the marijuana smokers in the flop town in Houston. I trailed the fairs and rodeos all over Northern California, Grass Valley, Nevada City; I trailed the apricots and peaches around Marysville.… Everywhere I went I thro wed my hat down in the floor and sung for my tips.”

The road ended in hospitals, where he spent almost all of his last fifteen years gripped in the twisted fingers of the incurable, hereditary Huntington’s Disease. When he died in 1967 he was legendary among the performers and consumers who made up the “folk movement” of the sixties. In those last years of enforced silence and involuntary muscular activity, through the long days of waiting, a trickle of visitors came to his bedside: the three children of his last family, led by his second wife, Marjorie; admiring performers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan; professional writers and folklorists. And out of that medicinal room, in that time of a new radicalism, Woody Guthrie was made into a symbol of folk protest as he had once himself sought to be in the proletarian thirties and early forties.

That he is now the fit subject of popularization on a far wider scale suggests, among other things, that the political stink of radicalism no longer clings to his name, and that the process of time that transforms all radicals into patriots and all revolutions into glorious blows for human liberty has been at work here.

Few know and fewer care now that Guthrie wrote some communistic journalism, that he came to accept the notion that America was in the clutches of a Wall Street-inspired conspiracy against working people, or that he looked forward to the total reorganization of American society as it was then (and now) and to the birth of a new socialistic one out of it.

They are right not to care about Guthrie’s engagement in formal politics: he was so bad a politician, so hopelessly naive, so radically individual, that even the Communist party wouldn’t have him—though he would have had them. In his better moments he knew this, too: “I just think how I think is right and let you do the same. I don’t care what party believes it or any part of it. I didn’t never want to be no politician, they’s too many crooked ones without me.”

And so what remains is the perdurable Guthrie, the person beyond politics and political uses. This is the quintessentially American Woody Guthrie who was almost mystically endowed with a profound understanding of the spirit of this land and whose life and work expressed a fierce and steady devotion to America’s promise as a nation founded on the belief in the dignity and divinity of each of us.

To see Guthrie in this way-culturally rather than merely politically-is to see him as an archetypal American who embodied much of our common history with all its troubles and thwarted excellences. And seeing him this way we can also see that he belongs to one of our most honorable traditions: those artists who have taken America seriously. I mean those whose lines and syllables are public acts insisting upon the very best from us, “necessary affirmations” (as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called them) of the worth and dignity of all persons and of this country as uniquely fitted to allow their expression. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams come first to mind here, and Woody Guthrie takes his place among them as easily and naturally as the colors, smells, and rhythms of our common life once sprang from his lips and fingers.