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

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The singer as Emerson imagined him was thus both articulator of the national myth and a subversive, both sponsor of the culture and antagonist of it; in either role, he would be beyond mere patriotism. As he would sing the promise of America he would remind Americans unpleasantly of national deceits and shams, of the shabby political betrayals of the great myth, of the great land that had given birth to it.

Emerson was, of course, far in advance of his time—and still may be of ours-and when he dared to speak of the divine spark within each person, the Harvard Divinity School excused him for nearly thirty years from further guest appearances.

Whitman also was too far ahead—in part because he had read his Emerson and taken it much to heart. He was so much what the master had imagined, with his freedom-bent lines, his incorporation of geography, his unabashed physicality, that at first Emerson tried to tone down this powerhouse singer out of nowhere and then dissociated himself from Whitman forever. For despite Whitman’s flagwaving, Fourth-of-July rhetoric, he really was that subversive myth-maker Emerson had called for. His songs were acts in history, his vision one that spoke of old dreams conveniently forgotten in the broad rush of expansionist America, dreams drowned by the roar of finance capitalism, railroads, steam whistles.

“This,” Whitman wrote, “is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or numbers of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families … dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

This is Guthrie to a dot. And clearly there is much in this program that went against the American grain as it had developed. Which is probably why Whitman never found such a kindred artistic soul in his own lifetime, and after a couple of decades of looking for a Woody Guthrie, he had to admit it:

“I say I have not seen a single writer, artist, lecturer, or what not, that has confronted the voiceless but ever erect and active, pervading, underlying will and typic aspiration of the land, in a spirit kindred to itself. Do you call these genteel little creatures American poets? Do you term that perpetual, pistareen, paste-pot work American art… ? I think I hear, echoed as from some mountain-top afar in the west, the scornful laugh of the Genius of these States.”

I do not know just how much of this great predecessor Guthrie read, but his identification with the voiceless poor, his unwearied insistence upon the myth of America, clearly predates knowledge of Whitman and goes deeper than any book. “Books,” he once observed, “is all right. Par as books go, but as far as they go, they still don’t go far enough.” If we can trust his two autobiographical works, Bound for Glory and Seeds of Man (“lifebound novels,” he called them, “both real and unreal”), Guthrie became like Whitman a subversive myth-speaker because he had witnessed the greatness of heart of American people in travail, deprivation, and bewilderment. And he saw these people in a huge, fecund landscape that still beckoned with dreams of dignity, justice, and plenitude.

He watched the beginnings of the Dust Bowl, first in Okemah and then in Texas, the uprooting of families, the collapse of farms. And on a prospecting trip into the Big Bend wilderness on the Texas-Mexico border he encountered endemic poverty that would outlast any dust storm. Here he saw again and anew the land, various, rich even in these spiky, rocky défiles and bottoms, and the people who somehow could not lay their hands on the naked necessities. He heard death underneath the unmuffled roar of trucks carting wetbacks to stoop labor and saw terror in the eyes of parentless children. He heard also the inexhaustible beauty of the human spirit in the music of the people’s stray, casual talk and laughter. He learned, also, of the folly of ownership of land and that his own lust for the riches of a lost silver mine was surely the curse that had blighted the myth he was then learning and that he would subsequently sing. As he remembered it later:

“And there on the Texas plains right in the center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about.…

“I never did make up many songs about the cow trails or the moon skipping through the sky, but at first it was funny songs of what all’s wrong, and how it turned out good or bad. Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in that country was thinking. And this has held me ever since.”