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

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Like all folk geniuses (and many a formally trained one as well) Guthrie was a profligate artist. At his best he is incomparable and elsewhere best ignored. But out of this period of the late thirties and on through the following decade he produced a remarkable body of song, both musical and written. Ballads of the Dust Bowl and songs of the refugees: “Talking Dust Bowl,” “Dust Storm Disaster,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh,” “Do Re Mi,” “Going Down This Road,” “Deportee.” Songs of work like the twenty-six he spun while watching the Grand Coulee Dam project get started. Songs of play like his delightful children’s songs. And the Joad ballads drawn from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (“Rapes of Graft,” as Guthrie had it). Plus the two large autobiographical books.

By the time he had completed Seeds of Man he was as acclimated to New York as he would ever be. He had gone there in 1940 in response to a letter from an actor friend of California days, Will Geer, who was playing on Broadway in Tobacco Road . The letter said there was more work and more action in New York, and so once again he left Mary and the children behind, this time with her family in Texas. Within a year Guthrie had divorced her and married Marjorie Mazia, a dancer with Martha Graham. These two small, intense people remained connected, especially in spirit, until the end of Guthrie’s life.

At first they shared a room so tiny that when the bed was unfolded there was no unoccupied space. Except in one corner. There where the walls made an “L” was a triangular desk with bulletin-board material above it. And there the troubador wrote. At night when Marjorie returned home from teaching dance they would take turns reading to each other the reams that he had spun out of the deprivations of the past, the inequities of the present.

Through such writings but more through his singing and recordings Guthrie now became an important part of that odd but vital New York subculture of folk musicians that included at one time or another Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Josh White, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Jean Ritchie. Alan Lomax affixed the stamp of official recognition on him through extensive recordings for the Library of Congress, and Victor released his album of Dust Bowl ballads. The sound Guthrie got into these records was that of the high winds and long roads of the great outback far beyond New York, but they did much to put him securely on the national entertainment map. This was an ambiguous situation for Guthrie, and to the end of his career he remained uncomfortable with it: he thought of himself as more than an entertainer and conceived of his mission as more selfless than a career. He was an entertainer, though, and he did fitfully pursue an entertainer’s career, but he remained one of the entertainment industry’s most unpredictable and ornery captives, and his periodic “escapes” became part of the Guthrie legend.

Perhaps only slightly less important to his growing popularity was his work with the Almanac Singers, a storied group that served as the model for subsequent groups, from the Weavers to the New Christie Minstrels to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. The Almanacs thought of themselves as traveling agents in the cause of social reconstruction, and basing themselves in New York’s Greenwich Village, they toured the states, singing for union benefits and political rallies. As the war drew closer, their energies turned toward it, and they sang against fascism, both foreign and home-grown.

Guthrie continued this work on his own after the outbreak of war. He was now beamed to troops overseas by the Office of War Information, and his guitar had a sign on it that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” After his enlistment in the Merchant Marine, the fascists, for their part, did their best to kill him ;on two of his convoy trips across the Atlantic his ships were torpedoed.