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

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They took up life here again with those others stranded in the now shriveled “town on a hill” with the wind rising and the sandy soil beginning to swirl about the abandoned oil works and the survivor sumac and cottonwood and the dry, beaten pastures. Charlie caught part of another boom, belatedly come to these rural Southwestern stretches. Now he sold auto license tags for the state, and for a moment things looked up. But then again: home fire, this time even more catastrophic. Guthrie hinted in Bound for Glory that his mother may have involuntarily set it. However it happened, Charlie Guthrie was terribly blistered in trying to put it out, and when the last had been extinguished, Nora Guthrie was well on her train-bound way to the state asylum at Norman on a one-way ticket.

Charlie went to convalesce with a sister in Texas while Woody, now thirteen, and his older brother Roy stayed on in Okemah. Mostly Woody lived by himself for two years in various abandoned buildings. In a hand-to-mouth existence he picked up junk and sold it to buy his meals. In those summers of 1928 and 1929 he hit roads out of town for what work he could find, hoeing figs, picking grapes, working his way as far south as the wharfed and furbelowed town of Galveston. Now in these hot days he carried a harmonica on his travels and sang the old ballads Nora had once sung while he brushed her hair in the precious calm. And he began also to pick up other songs, the songs of traveling, working, hard-luck America: blues, jig tunes, Indian shouts, truck driver company-keepers.

At the end of the summer of 1929 he decided to join his father again in another oil boom town, Pampa, Texas. Behind him he left apparently little besides the faded, almost anonymous entry in The Creekehoma , the high-school yearbook. Beneath a somber, too-old face, a white shirt and bow tie, the legend: “Woodrow Guthrie, Panther Staff ’28, Publication Club ’29, Glee Club ’29.”

Standing on Okemah’s Main Street in an early morning haze with a hot Southwestern sun still in the offing across the flats below, it is easy to see this town as it was before the boom and after. There is still life here, and one could watch Okemah waking to its hard and homely tasks much like many another town west of the Mississippi, the gaggle of pick-ups parked at the preferred breakfast spot, a few figures paused on sidewalks to read newspaper headlines, and a bunch of kids with towels and swim suits gathering outside the YMCA. Only a water tower above the flat roofs confers singularity on Okemah, for it announces that this was the “Home of Woody Guthrie.”

 
 
 
 
 

Indeed it was. And despite the fact that Guthrie left here even before finishing high school, he never ceased to regard it as home. Yet out here far from the media blitz, the record stores and book shops, there is still some genuine hostility to the poet. They have not entirely forgotten his subsequent leftist activities, and the sign on the water tower was put up there only over opposition. For the losers in this local skirmish Guthrie was “no good,” a troublemaker, a Communist, so the sight of the water tower must be a daily offense.

Guthrie often admitted that he and trouble traveled together, but almost as often he insisted that he didn’t cause the troubles he sang about but merely called attention to them. As he once wrote of crickets:

“Crickets don’t eat houses down. Crickets just hang around to sing that the damn thing’s a falling down. He’ll be there a long time singing about it.…

“Then the other bugs that really brought the house down will run off somewhere and they’ll say, Look at that god damn cricket, he was there all of th’ time! He’s th’ one! Get ‘im! He lives in rot an’ filth all of th’ time! He causes it! He believes in it! He spreads it around! Get that bastardly son of a bitch! And the cricket don’t want to live nowheres else. He had to stay on the job and holler and sing that the house was rotting down. He had to stay.”

So there is this ambivalent situation here: the artist’s love of a place he left early and that place’s mingled pride and anger that he was ever there at all. There is a gravestone for him in the local cemetery, but the clay beneath it is empty. Guthrie’s ashes were scattered over other lands and waters. And there is the house on the southern fringe of town where the Guthrie family once lived until driven out by the cyclone. Some years ago a local businessman purchased it to turn it into a memorial of some kind. An amiable gent I asked for directions to it seemed innocent of any resentment toward another of the Guthrie pilgrims who stops here on the way to somewhere else.