- Historic Sites
“Just What In The Hell Has Gone Wrong Here Anyhow?” Woody Guthrie and the American Dream
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
But the house itself reinforces the local ambivalence: it is a crumbling, rotting wreck, all but hidden even on its hilltop by grasses, tangled creepers, fallen tree trunks. Its mold-green roof sags earthward, its porch from which the boy looked out on all there was to see of Oklahoma is gone, and the east wall is braced by poles that are losing the slow battle. As Marjorie Guthrie told me, the family and friends remain undecided as to what to do with it, and the cause of their indecision is the community hostility. Pete Seeger wants to turn it into a sort of way station for wandering young people. But, she said, her son ArIo, young enough to have a different sense of things, feels this probably would not work because of local attitudes toward “hippies.”
So here it sits and settles. Inside, its shaky rooms smell of stale urine, and they are littered with the random, cast-away evidence that, memorial or no, this is a youth hang-out. Slogans on the ruined, peeling walls are about equally divided between allegiance to the symbol of Guthrie and to male pubescent fantasies of the flesh. From the high east windows you can gaze past vines and leaves down onto the flats that are dotted with agricultural outbuildings and the bobbing, hobbyhorse shapes of oil derricks.
On the land just back of the house Russell Bradley lives surrounded by his neat vegetable patch on which he raises “abundant crops.” We talked some through the vines of his pole beans, and he mentioned the occasional inconvenience of living next to the old homestead.
“Some that comes here respects me and some don’t,” he said. “Why, there was a bunch through here Sunday: tromped all over my tomaters.”
But there is no resentment of Guthrie himself. “Hell,” said Bradley, “I lived through that Depression. If I’d a had a guitar and could sing, I’d a done anything for a quarter.”
On the high Texas plains, Guthrie and the shattered remnants of his family became indistinguishable from the other Dust Bowl refugees who now began to drift before the winds, the dust storms, and the general economic blight that had overspread the nation.
The young man, his father, and his uncle Jeff tried one thing after another—clerking, police work, prospecting—in attempts to sink roots deep enough to withstand this weather. They failed, and it might be said that Okemah was the last and only home Woody Guthrie ever had, miserable and tragic as it so often was. For the rest of his life he was a wanderer, by necessity and by vocational choice. For here in Texas Guthrie discovered his career as a hardtraveling troubador.
From his uncle he learned to play guitar, and together they began to play country dances, rodeos, and carnivals. They sang for a while on a tiny, low-watt radio station. But Guthrie was different from the other busking singers and players who answered the modest needs of these hardhit people. He was different because he saw in their straitened, often pathetic, lives, in these least little entertainments they could allow themselves, his own calling. It amounted to nothing less than a religious conviction that he was meant to sing these people’s story, to sing to them, and to follow them wherever they went. More than this, the young man sensed that in these people lay the paradoxical essence of this country: this vast land with its mute, geophysical promises of freedom, equality, and plenty, its historic commitment to these same, and the dispossessed workers who stumbled and drifted about over its surfaces in search of the fulfillment of these promises. Somehow, in a way that must always elude accurate description, the spirit of the land and the plight of the common people entered into Guthrie and consumed him. It made him restless, cantankerous, moody, impossible to live with. It also made him inexhaustibly generous of himself, and it gave an unimpeachable power and authenticity to his art.
Unlearned in any formal sense, Guthrie before attaining his majority had mastered his lands and times in a deep, intuitive way. During the great intellectual ferment a century before the Dust Bowl, Emerson and Thoreau had noted the critical national need for such knowledge of America and for voices that could sing it. In the prim environs of Concord these men had divined a hollowness of heart beneath the often hysterical pretensions to national greatness, a hollowness that bespoke the unrealized ideals of the land and its people. Both thought that only someone with the imaginative power to incorporate the national history and make it his own could successfully articulate the problem and in doing so remind Americans of what this country was truly meant to be. Thoreau had tried this in Walden . Emerson guessed it might have to be the work of some unknown folk singer whose roots were sunk in the common soil.
Spare and straight and with still a whisper of Puritanism about him, Emerson had a courageous and daring imagination. In “The Poet” he dared to imagine a singer so close to the primitive that his language would bud from the earth in natural images, a singer with heart and genitals as well as head and brain. The picture language of this singer would be a song of freedom, of the inviolable sanctity of the individual conscience, and of the divinity within. America was itself the greatest poem, as yet unsung because these promises were as yet unrealized.