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

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Guthrie knew all about booms. He knew firsthand their terrible ephemerality, for he had seen his home town of Okemah stretch and collapse like an accordion in an oil boom at the beginning of the twenties.

Long before, this had been the roaming territory of the Wichita and Comanche tribes. Later it became part of the dumping ground for tribes dispossessed elsewhere. And still later it was a part of the Creek reservation until at last it fell into white hands. “Okemah” in Creek means “town on a hill,” and a rail junction established there in the first years of this century put a small dot on the region’s map.

Guthrie’s family was much like the rest—whites pouring into newly opened territory, southward out of Kansas, northward out of Texas. His maternal grandmother had been a log cabin schoolteacher when what became Okfuskee County was still Indian Territory. His father, Charlie, had been a cowboy and then a store clerk in Bell County, Texas. In Oklahoma he branched out into real-estate speculation, stockbreeding, and politics, while his wife Nora was giving him five children. If fortune had been otherwise, it is possible that the Guthries would be regarded today as one of the state’s founding families.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was the third of those five children, raised in his earliest years amidst the trappings of his father’s hectic and precarious success in a town small enough that “on your way to the post office, you’d nod and speak to so many friends that your neck would be rubbed raw.”

There was a minor key here, though, the sound of a sadness that coursed through the noise of the family’s expanding prosperity. It was in his mother, in her voice, in those old tragic ballads she sang out of her Scotch-Irish background. It was as if even in its brief days of happiness the doom and dissolution of the family were prefigured in these sung narratives of love and love’s end; just as in the high boom days about to come to the town the sure signs of collapse could have been read.

One day the family’s pleasant sevenroom house burned to the ground and they all heard in the stillness that minor key. They had to move to the tail end of town to an older house, the dank walls of which reflected the change. And there was more of the same to come, swiftly now, as though something had been loosed that could never again be brought together. Like a runner badly bumped off stride Charlie Guthrie scrambled madly to keep his balance, all the while falling farther behind. There was a cyclone that tore this older house to pieces. And then the death by fire of Woody’s older sister, Clara. And bad land gambles that quickly dissipated all of Charlie’s holdings. And finally the oil boom that instantly transformed Okemah into a jungle of main-chancers in yet another microcosmic recapitulation of our frontier heritage.

First there came the rig builders, Guthrie wrote, “cement men, carpenters, teamskinners, wild tribes of horse traders and gypsy wagons loaded full, and the wheels breaking down; crooked gamblers, pimps, whores, dope fiends, and peddlers, stray musicians and street singers, preachers cussing about love and begging for tips on the street corners, Indians in dirty loud clothes chanting along the sidewalks with their kids crawling and playing in the filth and grime underfoot. People elbowed up and down the streets like a flood on the Canadian, and us kids would run and jump right in the big middle of the crowds, and let them sort of push us along a block or so, and play like we was floating down stream. Thousands of folks come to town to work, eat, sleep, celebrate, pray, cry, sing, talk, argue, and fight with the older settlers.” The town’s population exploded from a couple of thousand to fifteen thousand and the smell and taste of oil and fast money filled the air.

But through it all, the Guthries did not prosper. The sadness in Nora Guthrie had by now manifested itself in acts of terrible, random destructiveness, flinging crockery and furniture against the walls, moaning, frothing at the mouth. The children cowered in the corners, unwitting witnesses to the power of that same Huntington’s Disease that would one day take the small boy who watched now. Later he wrote: “I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these. You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these. I know. I understand you. I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.” When she had calmed again, the children would pick up the pieces and straighten the rooms so that when Charlie Guthrie dragged himself home at evening after another defeated day in the boom race things would look almost normal.

In 1923 in the midst of the boom the family had to admit defeat. Charlie had lost it all by now and could not even pay the rent on their house. They moved out to Oklahoma City, and when they returned to Okemah a year later the boom was over and the town had settled back to tough it out as a tiny way station in the midst of chronic depression.