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

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This did hold him, a spellbound captive, and he held to it until the early fifties, after which he was unable to hold to anything. It was indeed the one great love of his life, transcending wives, children, friends, all the natural comforts of home, security, a steady job, lucrative recording contracts.

Perhaps only Marjorie Guthrie, his second wife and the one who cared for him all through those last years, really understood this. Speaking of that first wife Guthrie had married in Pampa and later left behind, she told me, “I’m sure if I’d been the one left behind out there, I wouldn’t have understood. As a young mother, I’m sure I wouldn’t have known why Woody had to travel. But when we met [in 1940 in New York] I was older, and since I had a creative life of my own, I could understand his. I always thought of him as going to something rather than away from something.”

But undoubtedly it was very hard to understand this driven man, and she remembered once trying to console one of the daughters of that Texas marriage. Sitting in the dark on the edge of the girl’s bed, Marjorie had told her that even if Woody wasn’t a very good father to her, he was a very important person. Important because he was trying to make America a better place for all children. If this sounds sophistical to us, it may be because we cannot take Guthrie’s commitment as seriously as he did; and it might even mean that we do not take the American promise as seriously as he did.

Forty years ago Guthrie hit the “long lonesome” out of the Texas Dust Bowl for what he and the other refugees mockingly referred to as the “ole Peach Bowl,” California’s “Garden of Eden.” Behind him he left his young wife Mary and their two girls, Gwendellyn Gail and Sue. Like a great many other men of that time his plan was to find work and make enough money to send for the family—though surely other needs were mixed in here as well.

The experience of migration was an impressive one, tallying with those he had had as a drifter and down-and-outer in Okemah, Pampa, and the Big Bend country. Here again on the farthest coast was the American paradox: border patrols as if these American refugees were aliens; fruit and vegetables rotting on the ground or dumped in refuse pits, rather than given to the hungry; jungle camps growing typhoid, desperation, and debt; and at the same time radio stations and newspapers willing to pay good money to someone who could describe all this. And Guthrie could, beginning with an outraged question, “Just what in the hell has gone wrong here anyhow?” but then passing on to songs where the love and the promise are bitterly juxtaposed with the impoverished realities just as the workers themselves were juxtaposed with the green fertility of the land and the unattainable alabaster sectors of the cities.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

There were more than 200,000 refugees in the state in the last years of the thirties, and so there was a market of sorts for artists who could sing and play their music. Guthrie got a job singing on KFVD in Los Angeles and then sent for Mary and the girls. A third child, Bill Rogers, was born to them out there.

By then, Guthrie was on the road again: he spent most of his time in California singing for the migrants in their jungle camps, in the federal work camps, and helping to organize cannery and factory workers. Here began his association with the Communist party. He sang for the party, wrote columns for party publications, and espoused party programs over the air. It is a measure of the times that his fame as a singer dates from precisely this period, and while on KFVD he received more than twenty thousand letters in two years, many of them with crumpled bills in them to help keep him on the air. At some point he apparently tried officially to join the party but was rejected. Perhaps party bureaucrats saw that no political structure could ever hope to contain this natural force. Thereafter, though his solutions to social ills remained radical, Guthrie was entirely free of identification with any specific political movement.